Mountain Valley Pipeline water permit arguments tread familiar ground

‘If I were on the board, I’d be getting pretty tired of this’

By: - September 29, 2021 12:02 am

The Mountain Valley Pipeline in Roanoke County, pictured in 2018. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

RADFORD — It could have been 2017 or 2021. 

For three hours Tuesday night, a crowd of Southwest Virginia residents, pipeline workers and environmental activists batted back and forth the same arguments the State Water Control Board has been hearing for the past four years as the Mountain Valley Pipeline project has ground forward, stalled, ground forward again and stalled again. 

“We keep treading water and saying the same things over and over again,” said pipeline supporter Oludare Ogunde, a nonprofit founder and organizer for the Laborers’ International Union of North America in Richmond. 

 “If I were on the board, I’d be getting pretty tired of this,” said nonprofit director and pipeline opponent Joshua Vana of Albemarle later in the evening. “I would have been tired of this probably the first time around back in 2017.” 

The hearing in Radford, which followed a Monday night session in Rocky Mount, was convened to gather public comment on Mountain Valley’s most recent attempt to obtain a key state water permit to complete the 303-mile pipeline intended to carry natural gas from West Virginia into Virginia. 

Under the federal Clean Water Act, projects like pipelines that discharge pollutants, including sediment, into waters of the United States must obtain federal and state permits that guarantee the project will not significantly degrade water quality. 

Mountain Valley initially received that approval in the form of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Nationwide Permit 12, a general permit that authorized all of the pipeline’s stream crossings, as well as through a certification from Virginia’s State Water Control Board issued in December 2017. 

In 2018, however, Mountain Valley lost the federal stream-crossing approval and the entire Nationwide 12 permit program came under legal challenge. 

This January, the developers changed direction, deciding to instead seek a new Army Corps approval and a Virginia Water Protection Permit — a course it described as “the most efficient and effective path to project completion” in filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  The federal permit hit a snag this July when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assessed a draft version and recommended that the Army Corps not issue it due to “a number of substantial concerns.” 

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)

In Radford on Tuesday, Robert Cooper, senior vice president of engineering and construction for Mountain Valley Pipeline, argued that issuance of the state permit would allow the project to be finished “as expeditiously as allowed so that the right-of-way can be fully restored and re-vegetated.” 

“This is and has been since 2018 the best outcome for water quality and the environment in general,” he told the board. 

Among the 50 members of the public who spoke Tuesday, arguments for and against the permit split along familiar lines, with supporters largely emphasizing the economic development potential of the pipeline and opponents pointing to the environmental concerns that have dogged the project since construction began. 

Quoting data from economic development group Roanoke Regional Partnership, Roanoke Gas CEO Paul Nestor said that since 2015, 431 of 481 projects that had considered investing in the region had required natural gas.

“The average consumer continues to demand natural gas to cook and heat their home and water,” he said. “We have exhausted all our supplies, and we need Mountain Valley Pipeline to serve our community.” 

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, whose district encompasses about 35 miles of the pipeline route, rejected the economic development arguments. 

“You all are the State Water Control Board, and what we are trying to determine is what’s going to happen to water quality, not what’s going to happen to the economy,” he said. 

He along with other opponents pointed to more than 300 environmental violations Virginia’s Office of the Attorney General in 2018 linked to Mountain Valley Pipeline. The state subsequently filed a lawsuit against the company, which was settled for $2.15 million in October 2019

Several pipeline supporters said that legal challenges to the project have compounded its environmental problems.

“We’ve had to maintain some of these areas for more than a year. In some places it’s more like two years, maybe longer,” said Stephen Stefanini, a pipeline worker. 

Opponents, however, cast the pipeline’s ongoing troubles and delays as proof the board should have denied the project its initial state permit in 2017. 

“Everything the citizens told you would happen has happened,” said Tammy Belinsky of Floyd. 

State Water Control Board Chair Heather Wood said Tuesday that the board would make a decision on the permit at its December meeting, with no further public comment taken at that time. Written comments will be accepted through Oct. 27.

The format of the meeting, which was held in-person only and not streamed, came under criticism prior to the hearing.

In a Sept. 23 letter to Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor, more than 150 groups and individuals said they were concerned about “the lack of a virtual participation option” given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and asked that Gov. Ralph Northam and DEQ “make accommodations for remote participation.”

“Even in a time of heightened health concerns, this meeting is being held in a region of the state experiencing high rates of COVID infection and in a region of overburdened ICUs,” Jessica Sims of nonprofit Appalachian Voices told the water board at its quarterly meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Board member Timothy Hayes said the body was receptive to the suggestion.

“I don’t think any of us are against the idea of expanding public access,” he said. “The problem is we’ve got statutory, regulatory, logistical and resource issues that keep us from doing it.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.