A sign carried by demonstrators outside the State Water Control Board meeting in August takes aim at, from left, Gov. Ralph Northam, Dominion Energy spokesman Aaron Ruby and Thomas Farrell, Dominion president, chairman and CEO, over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Mechelle Hankerson/ The Virginia Mercury)

Following four hours of review Tuesday, the State Water Control Board decided not to take action on state-issued water quality certifications for the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipeline projects.

Instead the board voted to “aggressively” enforce compliance standards, pass some information on to the national agency that issued water permits for the pipelines’ construction and require more erosion-control measures borrowed from the stricter rulebook of the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

“We’re really past the point now where process is going to solve the problem,” said board member Tim Hayes.

The seven-person citizen board made its decision after being briefed on 13,000 comments from the public on whether the Nationwide Permit 12 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was enough to protect Virginia’s waterways from pipeline construction.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a 600-mile underground natural gas pipeline proposed by a group of partners led by Dominion Energy. It would run from West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina, with a spur to Chesapeake.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is 303 miles, running through West Virginia and into Pittsylvania County. The project is being led by EQT Midstream Partners, based in Pittsburgh. 

Both have been lightning rods because of the potential effects on climate change, the damage to largely undeveloped mountainous areas construction poses, the use of eminent domain to seize property from unwilling landowners and arguments that the projects are more about profit for energy company shareholders than public need for more natural gas. 

Both have also been halted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission after opponents successfully challenged key federal permits issued for the projects.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality received 13,000 comments about whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit was adequate. Just over 10,000 of those were about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and about 2,500 were about the Mountain Valley pipeline.

About 2,000 of the 10,000 comments about Dominion’s Atlantic Coast pipeline were in favor of requiring a more strict state permitting process. According to the state’s analysis, 8,000 comments said the Army Corps’ permit was suitable.

DEQ staff said Tuesday that the state’s permitting and erosion control approval processes are almost identical to the national permitting process.

But pipeline opponents said that’s not true.

“The Corps of Engineers’ permitting decision is not based on water quality standards,” said David Sligh, conservation director for preservation group Wild Virginia and a former DEQ engineer. “They’ve said that’s not their job.”

Opponents also took issue with the state’s monitoring of erosion and sediment control with pipeline construction that has already taken place. Mountain Valley has already started construction in Virginia and Atlantic Coast has started in adjacent states.

Charmayne Staloff, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, described scenes of landslides and streams “choked with sediment” along the Mountain Valley pipeline construction corridor.

“These pipelines endanger the environment in Virginia,” she told the Water Control Board. She pushed for the state to require a stream-by-stream analysis, which would evaluate water quality at every point the pipelines cross a body of water.

The state claims it is taking every precaution to ensure the safety of the pipeline projects, according to a letter Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickler sent Monday to Sen. Creigh Deeds, who represents part of the area the pipelines will cross.

Strickler said DEQ has been following additional procedures to monitor the projects as closely as possible.

“This process meets the standard the governor set during his campaign for a stream-by-stream permitting process for pipelines,” Strickler wrote.

The Southern Environmental Law Center disagreed.

“We have seen firsthand that pipeline construction in Virginia cannot be done without causing serious and permanent sedimentation problems to rivers and streams,” SELC senior attorney Greg Buppert said in a statement.

“The people of the commonwealth deserve better than blanket assurances that everything will be OK when the facts on the ground show that they are not.”

The Virginia Sierra Club also condemned the board’s nonaction as a failure to protect Virginia waters.

“Nationwide Permit 12 requires far fewer protections for Virginia waterways than state water quality standards could under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act,” the group said. “Under the Clean Water Act, Virginia has the authority to require compliance with state water quality standards to study and mitigate the impacts of these two massive, dirty and dangerous pipeline projects to ensure Virginia’s water is protected.”

 

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach.