Cows graze along the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Roanoke County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - July 26,2018)

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has suspended all routine fieldwork, including regular inspections and in-person monitoring, for two weeks in the face of the continuing spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus.

The agency announced the move Wednesday afternoon as part of a push by the state government to limit employees’ exposure to the virus. As of Thursday, confirmed Virginia cases totaled 94, with 19 people hospitalized and two deaths. 

DEQ has also canceled all public meetings and public hearings through March 27, including the State Air Pollution Control Board’s upcoming meeting.

While regular fieldwork will be halted, DEQ offices will remain open and the agency will maintain much of its oversight over air and water quality via its monitoring stations throughout the commonwealth.

Because the agency’s stream gauge stations are connected to satellites, staff will be able to monitor incoming water quality data in near-real time, said DEQ Communications Manager Ann Regn, and will be “alerted if transmissions go down, so that maintenance can be performed.”

Data from DEQ’s continuous air quality monitors will also be accessible to staff, and Regn said automated quality assurance programs are in place to ensure that the agency meets federal environmental requirements. Manual systems to sample PM2.5, the finest form of particulate matter regulated by the state and federal governments because of its impacts on human health, have also been stocked with enough filters to last two weeks.

Sampling of PM10, a slightly coarser form of particulate matter, and lead particles will cease for the next two weeks. Regn said that because these samplers run on a six-day schedule, the agency anticipates losing only two runs of data.

Pipeline monitoring, including daily inspections and fieldwork, will continue to be carried out by contractors, and the U.S. Geological Survey will maintain its continuous water quality monitoring stations at pipeline and Chesapeake Bay locations.

Regn said USGS employees “are following social distancing practices and taking separate vehicles for monitoring that requires more than one person. They are also following disinfection protocols for themselves, vehicles, and equipment.”

Mountain Valley Pipeline work has not halted, confirmed project spokeswoman Natalie Cox. 

“As of [Thursday], MVP has not made changes to the project’s timing or schedules,” she wrote in an email. “The team is currently focused on environmental activities and both MVP personnel and contractors are following recommended public health guidelines, as related to COVID-19, and will continue to incorporate additional precautions as health guidelines are updated.”

Cox also said MVP will continue to work with regulatory agencies to obtain outstanding permits that have been revoked throughout the course of the project.

Albert Presto, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon and a researcher with the EPA-partnered Center for Air, Climate and Energy Solutions whose research includes ambient pollution measurements and atmospheric models, said temporary stoppages of inspection and monitoring activities should not cause much concern. 

Presto identified two potential issues that could be faced by environmental agencies limiting their fieldwork in response to COVID-19: the risk that states will fall short of EPA targets for data collection and, he said, the fear “that some sort of emission event is going to be missed or someone is going to do something nefarious.”

But with many companies shutting down operations, reducing their active workforce or encouraging employees to work at home, the odds of the latter “are pretty low,” he said.

Scale-backs may also be seen on the federal level. Former EPA Cynthia Giles told Bloomberg Environment this week that self-quarantines could reduce fieldwork by federal environmental inspectors, meaning that “enforcement reductions are very likely at the federal and state levels both.”