Democratic-led Senate committee kills bills to beef up regulation of pipeline construction

February 20, 2020 12:01 am

A portion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site in Franklin County in 2018 (Roberta Kellam)

Remember that marathon State Water Control Board meeting from last year?

The board agonized behind closed doors for hours with its legal counsel over whether it had the authority to revoke a certification it issued for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which had been spilling sediment all over its Southwest Virginia construction route, clogging private property and state waterways with mud.

No? Don’t worry. Neither, evidently, do a bipartisan bunch of senators who killed two of three bills to beef up enforcement of violations from destructive pipeline projects in a committee Tuesday. Some seemed unsure of what the board actually does.

By this time last year, Southwest Virginia landowners and residents had been begging the citizen board for months to do something about the pipeline construction, which had unleashed torrents of mud that covered roads and choked streams. Ultimately, it decided it couldn’t revoke the water certification it issued for the project, even in the face of a criminal investigation and widespread violations of state law that would lead to a more than $2 million fine and consent decree.

Two of three bills introduced by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, to fix the obvious inability of state regulators to halt the damage wrought by MVP or similar projects, went down in the Democrat-led Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee on identical 13-1 votes. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, long believed to be eyeing a statewide run in 2021, was the only vote against killing the bills.

The committee did advance Hurst’s bill increasing penalties for violations by the largest natural gas pipelines but not one that would have assessed additional fines for cumulative violations nor another that would give the water board stop work authority, among other provisions.

Opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline project led a tour of the denuded, muddy construction site in June at Four Corners Farm in Franklin County. (Mason Adams/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Though a lobbyist for the pipeline developers tried to pin the MVP’s damage almost exclusively on heavy rain in 2018, violations on the job sites are still happening, according to Wild Virginia, which combed through dozens of the Department of Environmental Quality’s own inspection reports between September and December. That’s even though much of the work on the project between West Virginia and Pittsylvania County has been idled by vacated federal permits.

“Mountain Valley’s violations during a time when its sites are mostly dormant are particularly inexcusable. In this period, all of the company’s efforts should be devoted to implementing environmental protection measures and yet the same kinds of problems that occurred on a frequent basis throughout the 18-month period before the decree was proposed are still  occurring, though less often,” wrote David Sligh, the group’s conservation director, in a letter to DEQ Director David Paylor this month.

Hurst noted that many of the affected landowners, as the violations mounted on MVP in 2018, felt like their complaints to DEQ were akin to shouting into a “void,” though he blamed it on the agency being spread too thin.

“They wanted some way of being able to feel like their voices were being heard,” Hurst told the committee, adding that his legislation would allow the board to “see, from a bird’s eye view … something is wrong here with the way this thing is being done. … Let’s empower our citizen board to be able to rise to the challenge and meet the call that is requested by the public and take action when appropriate.”

It didn’t go over well.

Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, perhaps informed by his experience as defense attorney and defendant alike, raised questions about the appeal rights of the pipeline companies in case their project gets shut down.

“I’m one of those people who’s a stickler for due process,” he said.

The committee chairman, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, expressed reservations about giving too much power to a citizen board.

“This is a citizen review panel,” he said. “We have to be wary in my opinion about how much authority we give to what is a part time panel. … I don’t think this is as easy as it looks.”

Yes, it would be too simple to give the regulatory board in charge of administering the state’s water control law stop-work authority over construction that is actively harming water quality in Virginia.

Better they remain limited to doing what DEQ and the governor’s office tell them to do.

Opposition from chamber, industry and oil and gas groups amounted to opposition to “wanting to be held accountable and wanting to be responsible,” Hurst said. “Whether the violation is minor or major … That’s breaking the law, and if you do it 20 times in a month, you should have your wrist slapped.”

Several representatives from environmental groups appeared taken aback by the votes to pass the bills by.

“There needs to be more teeth in the enforcement of the conditions of the permits the board approves,” said Peter Anderson, an attorney with Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit that has worked with landowners affected by the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

“The citizens whose land is impacted and all these permit condition violations are accruing, they’re throwing their hands up saying ‘Why isn’t anyone stopping work while all these violations accrue.’ … They report violations to DEQ and nothing happens. So the next place they turn is the citizen board that approved the permit in the first place. So if that board has the power to approve the permit but then not enforce the conditions of its permit, that seems to be bit of a break in process.”

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending 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. Contact him at [email protected]