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)

By Nan Gray and Freeda Cathcart

Southwest Virginia’s ecosystem is in peril from the negligent construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Our government must protect the water and our environment from the harm of the out-of-control gas industry.

Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality is underfunded and unprepared to regulate a massive fracked pipeline through Southwest Virginia. They have not taken the necessary action to prevent MVP from polluting our water.

The State Water Control Board issued a water quality certificate for the MVP project in December 2017. Scientists and engineers warned them that it wouldn’t be possible to build a 42-inch pipeline through the mountains without irrevocably harming the water. Before the board issued the permit, they were assured by the Attorney General’s Office that they could revoke the certificate if MVP was unable to protect the water.

Scientists, engineers and lawyers confronted the board in December 2018 with the evidence of the tremendous harm MVP’s project was causing to the water. The board voted to have a hearing to revoke the certificate. Instead of having a hearing, the SWCB met behind closed doors with the an assistant attorney general and then emerged saying they could not revoke the certificate.

In 2018, the General Assembly passed a bill giving the “Department” the authority to issue a stop work instruction.

The new statute says: “When the Department determines that there has been a substantial adverse impact to water quality or that an imminent and substantial adverse impact to water quality is likely to occur as a result of such land-disturbing activities, the Department may issue a stop work instruction, without advance notice or hearing, requiring that all or part of such land-disturbing activities on the part of the site that caused the substantial adverse impacts to water quality or are likely to cause imminent and substantial adverse impacts to water quality be stopped until corrective measures specified in the stop work instruction have been completed and approved by the Department.”

At the beginning of the project MVP made a terrible error with its stormwater analysis. The incorrect stormwater runoff rates assumed post-construction soil and groundcover conditions would be the same as pre-construction, forested conditions, even though FERC staff found the project would cause a significant, permanent loss of forest. This explains why MVP continues to pollute waterways with sediment.

The waterways being polluted by the MVP are the habitat for endangered fish. Paul Angermeier, assistant unit leader, U.S. Geological Survey, Virginia Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, and a leading expert on the federally-listed endangered Roanoke logperch, warned that  sediment-loading to waterways could adversely affect the fish.  He also said sediment-loading would occur during project operation and maintenance, not just construction.

July 8, 2020 FERC sent a letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service specifying five endangered species as “may be adversely affected” by the MVP project, including the Roanoke logperch and the candy darter which the UFWS described as having critical habitat.

Last September, Preserve Craig, a group opposed to the pipeline, along with other organizations, filed a motion with FERC detailing how MVP’s stormwater analysis was incorrect. Citizen monitors presented the information to the State Water Control Board in December 2019 after submitting GPS date and time stamped pictures and videos proving the continuing failure of the erosion and sediment controls. They pleaded with the board and DEQ to issue a stop work instruction to the MVP until the erosion and sediment controls were revised in accordance with a correct stormwater analysis.

In May 2020 DEQ sent the MVP project manager, a DEQ monitor and a civil engineer to meet with us. During the meeting they explained how incidents of MVP polluting the waterway didn’t qualify as violations. If MVP installed and maintained the erosion and sediment controls according to the approved plans then it could not be a project violation. This policy ignores DEQ’s responsibility to protect Virginia’s waterways and endangered species from harm. DEQ must issue a stop work instruction until MVP changes their erosion and sediment control plans to fit the reality of the soils, slope, vegetation, soil chemistry and soil fertility.

The state water board canceled its March meeting due to the pandemic and failed to add MVP to their June agenda, denying the public an opportunity to address the board about MVP continuing to pollute water. This is highly irregular to prevent the public from having any time to make comments to a citizen regulatory board.

During the meeting the DEQ staff reported they had sent a bill for violations to MVP. Now there are reports that MVP is refusing the measly $86,000 fine, and DEQ is entering into negotiations with MVP instead of issuing a stop work instruction until they pay up and until they revise their erosion and sediment controls based on a corrected stormwater analysis.

Attorney General Mark Herring needs to enforce the Consent Decree that requires an independent environmental auditor. MVP hired Tetra Tech to be the environmental auditor with DEQ’s approval. Tetra Tech is the same company responsible for the flawed stormwater analysis. The DEQ should insist on a truly independent environmental auditor who can be trusted to protect our water, endangered fish and ecosystem.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court Maui ruling affirmed the Clean Water Act protects waterways from pollution due to construction projects like MVP. DEQ must issue an immediate stop work instruction until MVP is able to build their project without polluting our waterways and MVP has paid all their fines.

Nan Gray is a licensed professional soil scientist in Virginia and North Carolina and has been in the profession for more than 30 years.  She formerly served on the Virginia Board for Professional Soil Scientists and Wetland Professionals and lives in Craig County. Freeda Cathcart formerly served on the Virginia Board of Pharmacy and the Virginia Midwifery Advisory Board. She lives in Roanoke. Both Gray and Cathcart have been volunteer citizen monitors on the Mountain Valley Pipeline project.