Overcome by heavy rains and its inability to control runoff from construction sites, Mountain Valley Pipeline is suspending work on its massive natural gas pipeline in Southwest Virginia.
The company’s surprise announcement Friday came after consultation with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which has received dozens of complaints about erosion and sediment-laden water flowing from a 125-foot-wide strip of denuded land that runs through six counties.
“The MVP project team takes its environmental stewardship responsibilities very seriously and wants to redirect its work efforts to focus exclusively on erosion controls affected by recent weather events,” company spokeswoman Natalie Cox wrote in an email.
Although the news was welcomed by pipeline opponents, reaction was tempered by the fact that the temporary suspension is part of an agreement between Mountain Valley and the DEQ that lacks the enforcement power of a formal stop-work order.
“This band-aid cannot heal the wounds already inflicted or prevent those that will occur if DEQ allows business-as-usual to continue,” David Sligh, conservation director of Wild Virginia, one of many conservation groups opposed to the 303-mile pipeline, said in an email.
In a news release Friday, the DEQ said Mountain Valley has agreed to suspend “all related construction activities within the project’s right of way” in Virginia, based on problems with erosion control identified during recent inspections.
“There is no specific timeline for the suspension; however, as soon as upgrades are completed and approved by DEQ, construction can resume,” spokesman Greg Bilyeu wrote in an emailed response to questions.
The agency has yet to issue any notices of violations against Mountain Valley, a step that already has been taken at least four times by its counterpart in West Virginia, where the pipeline will originate.
“I think it’s a public relations ploy, to be honest, to a certain extent,” said Kirk Bowers, pipelines campaign manager for the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter. “So that’s why we’re going to remain vigilant with DEQ.”
An earlier halt to work in a more limited area — part of Franklin County where Cahas Mountain Road was covered by up to 8 inches of mud during prolonged rains in May — was lifted by the DEQ after it said the problems were fixed in a matter of days.
But if there was a victory to be claimed by opponents, it was that the suspension came at a time of escalating resistance, including more than 3,000 comments recently submitted to the State Water Control Board, regular news conferences and protests, and direct actions by activists who have sat in trees along the pipeline’s path and chained themselves to construction equipment.
“Citizen complaints did factor into this decision,” Bilyeu said. “Public feedback, combined with what the agency learned based on DEQ inspections, led to this conclusion.”
A citizen watchdog group, Mountain Valley Watch, has submitted more than 20 cases of possible violations to the DEQ. And complaints from landowners about streams muddied by runoff, wetlands rutted by heavy equipment, and layers of sediment washed onto meadows and hayfields continue to pile up.
Opponents say people outside the pipeline’s direct path could be harmed by contamination of streams that feed private wells and pubic water supplies.
“We will not relent in our efforts to stop this badly conceived and ill-fated project,” said Roberta Bondurant, a Bent Mountain resident involved in several grass-roots opposition groups.
Friday’s delay in construction comes on the heels of a stay issued last week by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that put a hold on pipeline stream crossings in West Virginia while the court considers a challenge of a key federal permit.
Other phases of construction in West Virginia — such as blasting bedrock and digging trenches for the 42-inch diameter pipe — are not affected by the stay or the temporary suspension of work in Virginia, Cox said.
While it’s unclear how long the pause announced Friday will last, Cox said Mountain Valley is still aiming to have the $3.7 billion project in operation by the end of the year.
As for the deluge of complaints about muddy runoff from work sites in Virginia, Cox said the issues with inadequate erosion and sediment control measures came after “recent extraordinary rainfall.”
Central and western Virginia experienced intermittent downpours in the second half of May, resulting in localized flash floods and even landslides.
Roanoke finished May with 9.5 inches of rain, almost all of it May 15 and later, for its third wettest May on record. Blacksburg had nearly 6 inches in May, more than 1.5 inches above normal.
Yet according to Bowers, repairs that Mountain Valley made to its silt fences and other erosion control devices have failed to curb runoff during more moderate rains that have occurred since the first problems were reported.
Environmental reports compiled by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the lead federal agency overseeing construction of the pipeline, document numerous instances of unchecked erosion in both states.
Mountain Valley has classified some of the episodes as “problem area reports” or non-compliance with regulations in its own reports submitted to FERC. The agency has issued no enforcement actions, treating the problems as “communication reports” in which Mountain Valley is encouraged to take corrective actions.
On Tuesday, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, a nonprofit law firm that filed the legal challenge that led to a stay in West Virginia, asked FERC to stop work on the entire project. Filings with the agency’s online docket showed no response to the 10-page letter by late Friday afternoon.