Dozens of people urged the seven members of the State Water Control Board at an all-day meeting Wednesday to reject outright a proposed water quality certification necessary for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will run from West Virginia through six Southwest Virginia counties.
A smaller number of pipeline proponents called on the citizen board to endorse the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s conditions, intended to shield the more than 1,100 waterways the pipeline will cross. Construction produces sediment loads and entails blasting, trenching and drilling through streams and along some of the state’s steepest terrain.
But others suggested a third option: Deny the certification “without prejudice” and invite the pipeline developers and the DEQ to fix what critics contend has been an inadequate process to vet the potential water impacts of the MVP, led by EQT Midstream Partners, and another, longer natural gas pipeline project, the Dominion Energy-led Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Dominion’s pipeline faces the same approval process next week.
“It’s only through this process and this process alone that the state has the opportunity to ensure that its waters will be protected,” said Ben Luckett, an attorney with Appalachian Mountain Advocates, which has fought the pipeline projects. “There’s no need to determine once and for all the certificate at this time. ... There’s no rush.”
Can the board, which is tasked with deciding whether there is a “reasonable assurance” that construction of the pipelines will not violate state water quality standards, do that?
Last week, the DEQ would not answer questions about the menu of options available to the board members.
On Wednesday, though, the first of two days of meetings on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a spokesman for the DEQ said it can’t. Some environmentalists have long grumbled that the DEQ presents the water board with a narrow slate of options that constrain its authority.
Bill Hayden, the spokesman, noted that the board will pick up discussions about the certification and its options Thursday, when it is expected to make a decision on the MVP.
“DEQ does not consider denial without prejudice an option. Only denial is an option,” Hayden said. “It is possible the board could ask counsel about the ‘without prejudice’ part.”
Hayden said the board must take an action by Dec. 22. He defined an action as an approval, a denial or an amendment of the range of conditions the DEQ has recommended that would allow the project to advance. The DEQ is also proposing conditions intended to preserve forested buffers near streams, limit water withdrawals for pipeline testing, and order dye testing of karst terrain to trace the route of water through the porous formations characterized by springs, sinkholes and other links to groundwater.
Public comment on the draft certification closed Aug. 22.
That means, under Virginia administrative law, the board has 90 days to act. Though that time span has already passed, Hayden said there is another 30-day window after that date in which applicants have the ability to formally request DEQ action. That deadline would be Dec. 22.
“I’m not aware of any option where the board can delay,” Hayden said.
Board members, apart from Chairman Robert Dunn directing the order of what the DEQ said was roughly 85 speakers Wednesday, did not speak during the meeting.
The meetings this week and next are the climax of years of planning, permitting and protesting for the pair of natural gas pipeline projects, at least as far as Virginia’s say in whether they go forward.
Both pipelines have already won key approvals from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other federal agencies. The meetings are playing out under the watchful eye of a swarm of state troopers and Henrico police officers at Trinity Family Life Center in the county, booked because of its ability to seat hundreds.
Though there wasn’t a full house Wednesday, there was plenty of criticism of the DEQ, which has come under fire for relying on what critics say is an overly broad U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “blanket” permit for the spots where the pipelines will actually cross waterways as well as for its decision to remove review of plans to control erosion, sediment and stormwater from the certification process.
“We believe that more study should be done before the board can make a finding of reasonable assurance,” said David Henderson, the county engineer for Roanoke County.
Henderson said the state’s inventory of springs and seeps is incomplete and added that the county offered to partner with the DEQ to map the hundreds of unidentified springs it believes lie within the MVP’s path. Henderson said the county got no response.
Other speakers took on EQT’s environmental record and what they said was inaccurate information presented to the DEQ, the need for more bond money to protect landowners in case water winds up contaminated, and the lack of baseline water quality data for sensitive areas such as trout steams the pipeline will cross.
Robert Jones, a retired Virginia Tech engineering professor, told the board that EQT’s sediment predictions are “not worth a flip.”
“They’re underestimates of what’s really going to happen,” he said. “We’re saddled with a lot of sediment that will affect our water supply.”
Tammy Belinksy, an attorney and member of the Preserve Craig group, said “the public knows that mud flows downhill.”
“The same mitigation practices here proposed by MVP have failed in West Virginia,” she said. “The board has a duty to look behind the staff’s misrepresentations.”
Several speakers, including labor unions and industry representatives, among others, spoke in favor of the project.
“I don’t know what more anyone can reasonably expect from the DEQ or MVP,” said Trixie Averill of Roanoke. “This kind of planning has never been required for this kind of project and we need to get construction going so that we can increase access to natural gas and create jobs in Southwest Virginia.”
A squadron of suited EQT representatives at the meeting referred questions to Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh-based company.
“The MVP project has been under review for more than three years, and the proposed route reflects the extensive and diligent efforts made by the project team, in consultation with federal and state officials and other stakeholders, to ensure this important infrastructure project is built and operated safely,” Cox said in an emailed statement.
“Thousands of miles of natural gas pipelines currently operate safely in Virginia. MVP understands and shares the Virginia DEQ’s desire to protect water quality and is committed to responsibly building and operating this underground line to meet the region’s demand for natural gas.”