A demonstrator protesting the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines holds up a sign featuring a photo of David Paylor, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality , outside a September meeting of the State Water Control Board. (Robert Zullo/ Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has cleared the way for Dominion Energy’s 600-mile, deeply divisive Atlantic Coast Pipeline to begin construction here.

The agency has signed off on plans for how workers will manage erosion, sediment and stormwater along the route, which will cross hundreds of waterways and some of Virginia’s steepest terrain, the final approval the project needs before beginning to blast, trench and lay the pipe. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will issue the actual go-ahead for work to start here.

The DEQ announced the decision just after 5 p.m. Friday.

“These detailed protection plans specify engineering designs that will protect water quality during and after pipeline construction along the 300-mile project that stretches from Highland County to Greensville County,” the agency said in a statement.

The approval came with a report to the State Water Control Board, a condition of the water quality certification the board issued for the project in December under section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act.

“DEQ’s erosion sediment and stormwater regulations, and our extensive 401 certification gives the agency several enforcement tools to protect water quality and ensure compliance with Virginia’s rigorous requirements,” said DEQ Director David Paylor. “Our engineers and staff spent 15 months reviewing ACP’s site plans to further ensure water quality protections were accurately incorporated.”

The Virginia League of Conservation Voters wasn’t impressed, saying there’s little reason to think the failures to contain mud and stormwater that have plagued the separate Mountain Valley Pipeline, which is being built in Virginia now, won’t befall the ACP, though on a much wider scale because of its bigger footprint here.

“The certification comes even as evidence mounts in Southwest Virginia that state regulations did little to keep communities safe from the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which has clogged some of our state’s cleanest waters with mud and sediment as crews trenched across steep, rugged, flashflood-prone terrain,” the group said.

LCV Deputy Director Lee Francis said Paylor’s DEQ has seen fit “to allow an even larger, more complicated and environmentally destructive pipeline project to move forward, despite clear evidence that these pipelines can’t be built safely.”

Two sitting FERC commissioners have said the massive gas project, which relies on subsidiaries of the companies building it to justify the need for the gas and comes with a  14 percent rate of return for the developers, isn’t in the public interest.

“We simply don’t need hundreds of miles of costly and environmentally destructive gas infrastructure to keep the lights on in Virginia, but sadly, this approval is a step toward marrying Virginia to a future of higher energy costs and volatile fossil fuels for years to come while Dominion Energy profits handsomely at our expense,” Francis said.

The Virginia and North Carolina portions of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline route. Image via the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Work on the ACP began in West Virginia and North Carolina months ago, though it has proceeded in fits and starts because of court decisions that have invalidated several key federal permits.

Construction on the Mountain Valley Pipeline has likewise been going on for months, though also subject to its own stoppages, racking up a steady stream of complaints from observers and neighboring landowners — and a violation notice from DEQ — that the project has been “hemorrhaging sediment,” fouling waterways and neighboring properties.

Last week, precipitation from Tropical Storm Michael even floated two 80-foot sections of the pipeline onto a neighboring property.

“I do believe we were mislead in how good these (erosion and sediment) measures are,” said Coles Terry, son of Theresa “Red” Terry, who sat in a tree for five weeks to protest the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s intrusion on her’s family land, in remarks to the water board last month. “If these guys can lie to you about how good their (erosion and sediment ) measures are, I guess they’re allowed to keep building.”

Environmental groups and other pipeline opponents, who warned state officials repeatedly that it would be all-but impossible to build the pipelines through steep terrain without dislodging vast quantities of sediment that would clog streams and cause permanent damage in some cases, were vindicated by the debacle that’s played out with MVP construction.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline route. (via Roanoke County government)

It remains to be seen whether the agency has baked any lessons learned from MVP construction into the ACP plans. Melanie Davenport, head of the agency’s water permitting division, denied that MVP’s failures were delaying the issuance of ACP’s permits.

“After more than a year of detailed analysis, all aspects of these plans have been carefully reviewed, modified and intensified before being approved by DEQ,” Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler said. “We understand the pipeline projects have raised concerns. We remain dedicated to holding them to the highest environmental standards possible pursuant to state authorities.”

We’ll see.

There will be lots of people watching.

And with the pipeline footprint so much larger, it will be harder to shunt their concerns off into a corner as has unfortunately happened with southwest Virginia landowners and pipeline monitors.

 

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Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary.