Hurst bill aims to block pipeline worker surge in Southwest Virginia

Workers had begun laying portions of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Roanoke County near the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2018. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - July 26, 2018)

A bill filed by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, to require any employer hiring a crew of 50 or more temporary workers during the COVID-19 pandemic to receive approval from the commissioner of labor and industry would complicate Mountain Valley Pipeline’s plans to deploy 4,000 workers to West Virginia and Virginia once it resumes work. 

Besides the need to get commissioner approval, HB 5102 would also require such an employer to participate in one of Virginia’s Voluntary Protection Programs. These programs, which can be found nationwide, oversee voluntary worker safety and health management systems that “exceed basic compliance with occupational safety and health laws and regulations,” according to state code

MVP spokesperson Natalie Cox pointed to recent COVID-19 health and safety regulations passed by the state and said the company was “concerned that the proposed legislation could undermine the consistency of those standards, which could negatively affect a number of industries and have unanticipated implications for major construction projects across the commonwealth.”

The legislation follows a May statement by Thomas Karam, chair and CEO of Mountain Valley Pipeline developer Equitrans Midstream, during an earnings call that once the company is allowed to proceed with construction on the project, it intends to send “upwards of 4,000 people” to continue work on the pipeline. 

Cox said in an email that workers would include crews in both Virginia and West Virginia. 

Work on the controversial pipeline has been halted since October 2019, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a stop-work order in response to a federal court invalidating a key permit known as a biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

A new biological opinion is currently being drafted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. MVP had expected it to be released in July. 

In the wake of MVP’s announcement that the company intends to deploy 4,000 workers, 22 Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam, Virginia Health and Human Services Secretary Daniel Carey and Virginia Health Commissioner Norman Oliver asking them to “do all in your power to stop MVP from proceeding with construction at any point during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Bringing thousands of out-of-state workers to a medically underserved area of the commonwealth in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic is a dangerous undertaking that would undermine efforts to keep infection rates down and intensive care unit beds available,” the legislators wrote. “We urge you to take action to remove the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks by stopping MVP from proceeding.”

The letter also cited findings, reported by Kaiser Health News, that half of the six Virginia counties that Mountain Valley will cross have no intensive care unit beds. The six-county area has 97 ICU beds in total.

Cox said in an emailed statement that the company has “implemented strict COVID-19 working protocols” and “will continue to incorporate additional precautions as updates are made to such federal, state and local guidelines.”

Furthermore, she wrote, “to the extent that our MVP field workforce has originated elsewhere, they are not transient and most have been involved with and working on the Project for the past two years. The ‘non-local’ workforce has long-established local housing and generally live in the area full time. They are members of their local communities; and they are managing the COVID-19 situation together with their neighbors and other members of the community.”