The State Water Control Board, alarmed by a flood of mud from partial construction of a natural gas pipeline in Southwest Virginia, on Tuesday ordered state regulators to step up enforcement of state water quality standards but stopped short of revoking permits for the project and another pipeline planned through the heart of Virginia.
The water board narrowly defeated, 4-3, a motion to modify or revoke the state’s certification of a nationwide permit to oversee more than 1,000 water crossings by the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines, but agreed unanimously to require more rigorous enforcement of state standards to protect water quality.
“I think the enforcement needs to be as aggressive as it can possibly be,” said Timothy G. Hayes, a retired environmental attorney who made the final motion.
The water board’s action still dismayed a capacity crowd of pipeline opponents who expressed their distrust of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality throughout a tense, nearly four-hour meeting that they interrupted repeatedly to challenge statements by regulatory staff.
“It’s not working!” someone shouted after a DEQ enforcement official acknowledged that a photo of the muddy overflow from work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline at Boones Mill in Franklin County was taken after actions to correct the problem.
James Hargett, a resident of Rocky Mount in Franklin County, denounced a two-hour presentation by DEQ staff about the sufficiency of the nationwide permit and the department to protect either residents or the environment.
“I’ll show you mud washing out driveways; I’ll show you ponds that are beyond use; I’ll show you streams where fish are dead of the mud!” Hargett thundered.
Construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline was about 20 percent complete when, on Aug. 3, federal regulators ordered work to stop until the U.S. Forest Service reissues a permit vacated by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Trees have been cleared, but work has not begun on the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The company, led by Dominion Energy, is awaiting DEQ review and approval of plans to control erosion and sediment along about 300 miles of the project in Virginia, as well as the reissue of two federal permits the 4th Circuit tossed out earlier this month.
On Aug. 10, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered work to stop on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline until the company secures valid permits from the U.S. Park Service to tunnel beneath the Blue Ridge Parkway and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to allow “incidental taking” of five endangered or threatened animal species in its path.
Tammy Belinsky, who lives in Copper Hill in Floyd County, called the problems caused by Mountain Valley construction “a bellwether of what will happen with the Dominion pipeline.”
Belinsky waved enlarged photographs of the mud-swollen North Fork of the Roanoke River in Montgomery County, where she said uncontrolled sediment from the project is killing Roanoke logperch, an endangered fish.
“This is a crime!” she shouted at the seven-member board.
EQT Partners, lead developer of the 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, said the company was pleased by the water board’s decision to uphold its use of the Nationwide 12 permit to regulate pipeline water crossings, as well as the state’s ability to enforce its own permit under the Clean Water Act.
“The measures adopted by these approvals, working in conjunction with oversight from other federal, state, and local authorities, will ensure the construction activities for the MVP project comply with Virginia’s standards for water quality protection,” spokeswoman Natalie Cox said in a written statement.
Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby also issued a statement backing the water board’s approach for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“At every stage of the project we’ve gone above and beyond the regulations and adopted some of the strongest environmental protections ever used by the industry,” Ruby said. “The goal of everything we’re doing is to preserve Virginia’s water quality and keep sediment out of our streams and rivers.”
But some water board members appeared skeptical of the state’s ability to protect water quality from sedimentation, after Melanie Davenport, DEQ’s director of water quality permitting, said the state does not have a way to measure or enforce sediment limits in waterways.
“That’s really not reasonable assurance we are protecting the water quality,” said Roberta A. Kellam, a board member from the Eastern Shore.
Kellam joined two other members of the seven-member board in supporting an unsuccessful motion to hold a formal hearing on whether to revoke or amend certification of the national permit, which gives regulatory oversight of stream crossings to the Army Corps of Engineers instead of the state.
The motion by Robert H. Wayland III, from the Northern Neck, failed by a 4-3 vote after other board members questioned whether the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could overrule any attempt to revoke or amend state certification of the nationwide permit.
Instead, the board adopted a motion by Hayes, the attorney, to require the DEQ to share relevant information with the Corps to enforce the permits at water crossings; aggressively enforce the state water quality permit under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act; and respond promptly and effectively to citizen complaints.
“They’re not doing it!” someone shouted from the crowd.
The DEQ has received 128 complaints about Mountain Valley construction and investigated 91, with the other 37 still open. Out of 40 inspections, state regulators required corrective actions on 21, with nine of those considered significant and three showing excessive amounts of sediment in streams.
Charmayne Staloff, associate attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the DEQ issued a notice of violation for multiple streams and found 11 inches of sediment in one stream segment.
After the meeting, Staloff was skeptical about whether the board’s action will improve water quality protection.
“The motion requires DEQ to continue doing the enforcement,” she said. “As we heard today, and some members of the board agreed, that isn’t enough.”
“So far, it doesn’t seem like it accomplishes anything.”