Commentary

Mountain Valley Pipeline has a terrible record. Why would regulators let it go forward?

November 12, 2021 12:02 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)

By Richard Shingles

Mountain Valley Pipeline is not a done deal.

Much depends on the deliberations of Virginia’s State Water Control Board. The Department of Environmental Quality has written a draft permit to provide Mountain Valley Pipeline with what is effectively blanket permission to dig trenches for a 42-inch diameter buried pipe through 144 Virginia streams on the false presumption that it will not violate Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. The board should decline the draft.

The DEQ document states “the board has determined that there is a reasonable assurance that this permit, if complied with, will protect instream beneficial uses, will not violate applicable water quality standards, and will not cause or contribute to a significant impairment of state waters or fish and wildlife resources” (emphasis added).

These are unsubstantiated assertions. They beg the questions which should be addressed before permitting. MVP has failed to demonstrate that construction will not impair aquatic life or minimize impacts. Nor will it.

MVP’s sole responsibility is to its investors, not to protect Virginia water resources. It has as a terrible record of violating erosion and sediment control rules and releasing sediments into Virginia streams for which it has been cited hundreds of times and fined millions of dollars. The applicant has a history of obfuscating and concealing information inconsistent with its objectives.

Mountain Valley Pipeline agrees to pay Virginia $2.15 million for environmental violations

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees. It cites “substantial concerns” with MVP’s inadequate responses to requests for information, specifying: (1) deficient characterization of the aquatic resources to be impacted, (2) failure to show all feasible avoidance and minimization measures and (3) insufficient assessments of (a) secondary and cumulative impacts, (b) the potential for significant degradation and (c) proposed mitigation procedures.

In-stream construction poses well-known risks. Back filling trenches and disturbances to channel beds and banks results in suspended sediment concentrations and sedimentation that can last for years. Even with brief suspensions, the consequences can be long term and fatal for individuals or whole populations. This compromises the physical and chemical nature of both fish habitat (e.g, damaging gills and impaired spawning, egg and larvae development) and biological habitat (the organisms on which fish feed and depend). In-stream experiments document extreme stress and death. Two endangered species that will be impacted by the MVP are the Roanoke logperch and the candy darter.

In many locations the potential and magnitude of elevated sedimentation is compounded by the existence of other proximate hazards — the steep slopes, poor soils and karst typical of the Ridge and Valley Region — as well as by multiple crossings of the same streams or within a watershed. The Upper Roanoke and Middle New watersheds will have hundreds of impacts.

It is precisely because research on the adverse impacts of open-cut construction on aquatic habitat are not complete that the DEQ should error on the side of caution and require best management practices for mitigating worst effects and monitoring water crossings.

Without actual field data collected before, during and after construction, the likelihood of long term or permanent harm must be assumed to be significant. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulations and guidance, on which the DEQ depends, are not adequate for the geological and ecological complexities of the region, nor do they conform with current best practices.

The board must deny a permit because MVP has failed to present, and DEQ has not considered, the full impact of open-cut construction for all affected Virginia water bodies. There are not adequate safeguards to protect aquatic life. There is ample basis for believing that MVP will violate applicable water quality standards and will cause or contribute to a significant impairment of state waters, fish and wildlife resources.

Richard Shingles is chair of the Sierra Club New River Valley Group.

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