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Fairfax County seeks to regulate ‘high-pressure’ gas pipelines in residential areas

Pimmit Hills community members rally against a planned natural gas pipeline in 2020 (courtesy Devin Buries)

Fairfax County is exploring avenues for regulating or even prohibiting the construction of high-pressure natural gas pipelines under residential streets.

The county’s Board of Supervisors directed staff last week (Dec. 5) to evaluate options for “Board evaluation of, or possible prohibition of” gas pipelines that utilize local street rights-of-way based on their size, the type of pipe used and other operational factors.

The request was spurred by safety concerns from residents, according to Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust, who introduced the motion.

“The residents have questioned the safety and need for this type of line to be located under a local residential street, citing concerns about a higher risk for gas leaks and related hazards in the event of a rupture due to construction activities within proximity of the line,” Foust said.

While no specific project is mentioned in the board matter, which passed unanimously without discussion, Foust confirmed to FFXnow that the potential risks of having major gas pipelines under residential streets was brought to the board’s attention by Pimmit Hills residents, who have spent several years now fighting a planned pipeline through their neighborhood.

The 2-feet-wide underground line proposed by Washington Gas would replace an existing 14-inch-wide line and complete the Strip 1 Tysons project that has been in the works since 2012. When finished, the 5-mile pipeline will run from Tyco Road in Tysons to a new regulator station at the Pimmit Hills Center (7510 Lisle Avenue).

Pimmit Hills residents have rallied against the project, which they argue will endanger their homes and families. Washington Gas has said an alternative route putting the pipeline under Route 7, instead of residential streets, would be more disruptive and time-consuming.

After the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals ruled in February 2022 that the project needs to get additional county approvals, Washington Gas sued the zoning board and four residents in a lawsuit that challenged the board’s authority to overrule an administrator who determined the project could proceed.

Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David Oblon overturned the zoning board’s ruling on Oct. 12, determining that the pipeline is a distribution line and, as a result, not subject to the county’s zoning code.

“Washington Gas’ entire series of pipelines engage in the distribution of gas. They are all exempt from the Zoning Ordinance…exactly as the Zoning Administrator originally stated,” Oblon wrote in his opinion, disputing the defendants’ argument that the pipe counted as a transmission line because it doesn’t directly serve the affected properties.

The defendants have appealed the decision to the Virginia Court of Appeals and are seeking to put any construction on hold while Fairfax County develops a possible ordinance, according to Christine Chen Zinner, one of the residents. A hearing on the request for a pause is scheduled for this Friday, Dec. 15.

Kurt Iselt, another defendent and Pimmit Hills resident, says the community is “grateful” that the Board of Supervisors is looking at potential regulations after the October court ruling suggests “the clock on this ticking time bomb is running out.”

There have been several Washington Gas incidents that have hurt individuals and damaged property, so the very thought of placing such a large scale high pressure transmission line in a densely packed residential area raises many safety concerns. These safety concerns impact the entire county due to the recent court ruling, so we’re relieved to see the Board of Supervisors moving in the right direction. Taking steps to study the matter is helpful, and we’re aware of several easy fixes to clarify this ordinance with minimal to no unintended consequences.

According to Washington Gas, the Strip 1 Tysons pipeline will have a maximum pressure of 325 pounds per square inch — 16% of what the system is designed to safely handle.

When asked about Fairfax County’s evaluation of high-pressure pipelines, Washington Gas Director of Strategic Communications Andre Francis noted in a statement that they’re already overseen by federal and state agencies, though the utility’s website says this project didn’t require any federal regulatory approvals.

“These natural gas pipelines are a necessary and integral part of the local natural gas distribution system,” Francis said by email. “Natural gas pipeline safety is fully regulated by the federal Department of Transportation and delegated to the state regulators. The federal regulations that govern natural gas utilities allow for these types of pipelines to be installed in residential streets. These pipelines are installed in accordance with safe, modern construction standards.”

However, gas lines of the intensity and size planned for Pimmit Hills could cause greater damage if they’re struck during construction, residents have argued.

“The fact that Washington Gas would even consider running large high-pressure gas lines under neighborhood streets is a countywide concern,” Foust said.

In addition to seeking to determine whether it could get a say in approving future pipelines, the Board of Supervisors asked county staff to review best practices for the “safety, installation and location of such ‘high-pressure’ gas lines.”

Recommendations will be brought to the board’s land use policy committee in March 2024.

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