A failure to act by the water board on Mountain Valley Pipeline will allow more violations

February 28, 2019 5:01 am

Muddy water from the Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site flows over control measures and into Teels Creek in Franklin County. (Photo taken June 13, 2018, by Dave Werner)

On Friday, the Virginia State Water Control Board will meet to discuss whether it should revoke a key permit previously issued to Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The permit in question, the 401 Water Quality Certification, authorizes pipeline construction in upland areas; essentially everywhere except wetlands and stream crossings.

Crucially, this permit does not authorize MVP to discharge water, sediment or other materials into waterways in Virginia, and was issued by the board after it determined “there is reasonable assurance that [MVP] activities covered by this certification will be conducted in a manner that will not violate applicable Water Quality Standards.”

Now that MVP is being sued by the state for more than 300 individual violations — an average of more than one violation per day during construction — and is also under federal criminal investigation for illegal construction activities, the board has no choice but to suspend its prior issuance of the water quality certification.

In spite of MVP’s endless assertions of its commitment to Virginia’s environment and local communities, the disaster currently unfolding in the state’s iconic Blue Ridge Mountains was always the most likely outcome.

If you have not been closely following the pipeline permitting process over the past 3+ years, then you may be surprised to learn MVP provided the following startling details — by no means an exhaustive list — in its final Environmental Impact Statement, which was subsequently approved by our state and federal agencies.

MVP has routed 72.6 miles of the pipeline in Virginia — 68 percent of its total length in the state — through areas of moderately high to high “landslide incidence/susceptibility.”

MVP crosses 283 individual “steep slope” segments greater than 30 percent grade in Virginia.

MVP provides ZERO scientific evidence that it can control erosion effectively on these steep landslide-prone slopes.

Alarmingly, these points have been made countless times by hydrologists, soil scientists, engineers and other professionals in numerous public filings during the permitting process.

Yet none of this expert advice appears to have had the slightest impact on MVP’s ability to extract agency permits, though several permits have since been invalidated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for 4th Circuit.

In spite of the loss of these permits, MVP has been allowed to continue construction in all areas not affected by the individual permits, and the results have been demonstrably disastrous.

The state is not only justified in acting now, it has an obligation to revoke the water quality certification — not just recoup fines from violations — as it lacks even a modicum of reasonable assurance that MVP will be able to comply with the permit conditions now or in the future.

Lastly, while the board will be meeting to discuss MVP’s impacts on water resources in Virginia, it is imperative the board also consider how uncontrollable erosion — the source of the water quality violations MVP is currently being sued for — also threatens the integrity of the pipeline itself.

With a diameter of 3.5 feet and pressure of 1,440 pounds per square inch, MVP will be among the largest natural gas pipelines built on U.S. soil.

To put this into perspective, this pipeline is so large the average kindergarten-age child can comfortably run through it, and you would need to dive well over half-a-mile below the surface of the ocean to experience this kind of pressure.

If the pipeline is ever punctured or ruptures as a consequence of its construction across miles of inherently unstable slopes, it is virtually guaranteed to explode. More precisely, scientific analysis of historical natural gas pipeline incidents indicates the probability that escaping fuel will ignite is around 80 percent — for pipelines much smaller than MVP.

MVP is hanging all its hopes on the argument that it has already invested so much money into the construction of the pipeline that it is too late for construction to be stopped.

However, the water quality certification issued by the board may be revoked at any time, as the permit applies to “all proposed upland land-disturbing activities associated with the construction, operation, maintenance, and repair of the pipeline.”

MVP will abandon the pipeline in place at the end of its useful life, and will not return the right-of-way to its natural state.

If the board fails to act now, it guarantees the current water quality violations will continue to occur in perpetuity.

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Jacob Hileman
Jacob Hileman

Jacob Hileman is an environmental hydrologist with a doctorate from the University of California, Davis. He was raised in the Catawba Valley of Virginia, and is presently a researcher with the Centre of Natural Hazards and Disaster Science at Uppsala University.