Washington Gas’ plan to install a natural gas pipeline through the heart of the Pimmit Hills neighborhood has its residents fighting the project neighbors say is a potentially dangerous action that’s unprecedented in Northern Virginia.
The Pimmit Hills Citizens’ Association has been leading the effort to reroute the two-foot-wide pipeline ever since Washington Gas alerted the community to its intentions to start the Strip 1 Tysons Project in the fall of 2018. Back then, door-knocking and letters distributed by the utility company segued into a community meeting. But that meeting, PHCA president Robert Heilen said over email, left residents with few clues about the project’s scope.
Heilen added that follow-up questions went unanswered on the project’s FAQ page, despite what Washington Gas said it would do. Also, an agreed-upon meeting between Washington Gas and the Virginia Department of Transportation, as well as Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust, State Senator Janet Howell, State Delegate Marcus Simon and PHCA in November 2018 never materialized.
VDOT spokesperson Ellen Kamilakis said the agency initially denied the permit to build the pipeline in Dec. 2018 because it suggested an alternate route. Kamilakis clarified that such a denial was outside of the agency’s authority. The second denial last July was due to a missing signature. The politicians penned a joint letter to VDOT in opposition of the pipeline in October, a month before VDOT approved Washington Gas’ corrected permit.
“We are deeply concerned for the safety of our families,” Heilen wrote. “This is not just the typical [five-inch] natural gas pipeline that gives your home natural gas — this is a two-foot wide, high pressure pipe that is typically not routed through narrow residential streets, but are placed along arterial roadways like Leesburg Pike.”
The gas travelling through this type of pipeline will be used to fuel commercial buildings with higher gas demands, according to Brian Edwards, a spokesperson for Washington Gas. Pimmit Hills resident Christine Zinner noted that, according to Virginia’s State Corporation Commission documents from 2015, the pipeline will be used to funnel gas to parts of Maryland and Washington, D.C. along with Virginia. However, Edwards told the News-Press that the pipeline will not service places outside of Virginia.
Safety concerns stem from other natural gas pipeline explosions around the country in recent years. Some of those that PHCA cited include the Sept. 2018 explosion in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, caused by a landslide, and the rupture of a pipeline in Mississippi that left dozens hospitalized after the ground above the pipeline caved in. Both pipelines were two feet in diameter.
Edwards said that the steel pipe will be placed under some of the neighborhood roads and it’s sturdy enough to withstand being struck by a backhoe. That information is designed to address the community’s fear that the high rate of homes being torn down and rebuilt could result in construction crews hitting the pipeline. Inspections of the pipe can also be done without having to dig it back up.
Washington Gas’ decision to run the pipeline through Pimmit Hills was to avoid its impact on construction time and traffic. Edwards mentioned that the neighborhood route would take three years to complete and affect 7,000 commuters per day, as opposed to the Magarity Road route suggested by PHCA and area politicians, which would take six years and affect 41,000 commuters per day.
Heilen feels as if Pimmit Hills is being unfairly treated due to the community’s “high minority population and lower income than many surrounding neighborhoods.” He pointed out that research done by PHCA to map out transmission gas lines in Fairfax County found that none run directly through any other subdivisions.
Their research identified that the closest one goes near Kings Park in Burke, but that pipeline is routed around, instead of through, the neighborhood. Washington Gas wouldn’t specify to PHCA which parts of Northern Virginia had similarly-sized pipelines running through neighborhoods.
Edwards told the News-Press that “a 24-inch pipeline is not uncommon in other parts of the system across the area.” For comparison, the Strip 1 West Project also being done by Washington Gas mostly follows along Route 7 with only minor offshoots into neighborhoods.
Pimmit Hills residents said they have no problems with the pipeline itself, which Edwards said had received more opposition than most projects, they just don’t understand why their neighborhood is a part of its trajectory.
Zinner said, “Given how close these houses are in Pimmit Hills and how narrow these streets are, we will definitely be blown away if…there’s a rupture.”
One homeowner is filing a lawsuit against Washington Gas over the construction of the pipeline. The neighborhood will hold a protest march along the pipeline’s route on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. starting at the Pimmit Hills Center.