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Mountain Valley Pipeline receives initial permission to cross Virginia waters

Crowds lined up in Richmond, Va. to protest the Mountain Valley Pipeline. (Photo: Patrick Larsen/VPM News)

Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC received a key permit for completing their project in Virginia. The state Water Pollution Control Board, a citizen body under the Department of Environmental Quality, voted in favor of a state water crossing permit required under the federal Clean Water Act and state law.

Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC and its parent company, Equitrans Midstream, say the pipeline is an essential piece of energy infrastructure in Southwest Virginia, a sector which has struggled economically even as the rest of the state prospered. Now, they say  there is only about 20 miles of pipe left to lay, out of 303 in total, most of which sits along water crossings.

In Virginia, the pipeline runs 107 miles through Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke, Franklin and Pittsylvania counties.

Prior to the board’s decision, DEQ staff recommended approval of the permit, saying it meets both state and federal standards. They recommended the state allow the pipeline to cross streams and wetlands in over 400 locations. About 2 acres of wetlands would  be permanently affected, with compensation from MVP in the form of purchased conservation credits.

An extended battle

In January 2018, MVP received a broader type of water crossing permit than was discussed today. That permit  was vacated by a federal court when it found that MVP was not compliant.

Attorney General Mark Herring and DEQ sued MVP LLC over 300 confirmed environmental violations in 2018. That resulted in a payment of over $2 million in civil penalties, and identified penalties for future violations.

DEQ argues the complaint doesn’t apply to any water quality standards, nor does it imply a violation of those standards. Instead, staff told board members the violations deal with activities that could lead to illicit water pollution - such as failing to adequately stabilize a work site.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommended in May that the Army Corps of Engineers reject MVP’s federal water crossing permit as it was written, but the Corps has yet to make a decision. MVP LLC says they’re continuing to work with government agencies to ensure compliance with state and federal pollution codes.

A week before the board meeting, Herring weighed in, although indirectly. In response to state Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield County), Herring ordered that citizen boards of DEQ and other state agencies consider the Virginia Environmental Justice Act and Waste Management Act in permitting decisions.

DEQ responded to a question from the board on the EJ Act - saying the department and MVP met the requirements of the law by providing information and communications across local media like newspapers and radio. They also argue that there is not a definite fenceline community to be impacted - which, under Virginia’s law, would exist on the cusp of a polluted area - because the permit deals with more than one specific location.

Finally, DEQ says the permit only covers surface waters and temporary impacts - so did not have data on potential long-term or groundwater impacts.

Virginia’s EJ law played a significant role in another DEQ pollution board’s recent decision to deny an MVP permit. The Air Control Board voted 6-1 to deny a permit for the Lambert Compressor Station in Pittsylvania County.  The station would have served the proposed MVP Southgate extension.

In Tuesday’s meeting, DEQ staff responded to summaries of public comments dealing with threatened and endangered species, water quality, cumulative impacts, and more alleged shortfalls in the draft permit. Dave Davis, head of DEQ’s office of Wetlands and Stream Protection, said the permit was not committing any suggested violations.

Davis also addressed comments that, given the consent decree with the Attorney General identifying past construction violations, the permit should not be accepted, and rejected the idea that there are serious, ongoing violations. He also said the draft permit, as it stands now, addresses concerns raised by EPA in its letter to the Army Corps of Engineers.

However, some board members were rankled by the fact that the proposed fixes generally constitute additional mitigation funding.

Mountain Valley has also faced public opposition since its earliest stages, and has been subject to significant delays caused by activists. Activists have locked themselves to construction equipment, blocked construction sites and participated in multi-year tree sits to delay progress.

People from all over came to voice opposition

Hundreds of those activists turned out in Richmond this weekend for the “Violation Vigil,” to voice their opposition to the pipeline. People came from Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and even South Dakota.

Jessica Sims of Appalachian Voices said the rally was organized to give people a voice. The board held two public comment hearings this year with a quorum of board members present, so were not required to hear public comment on Tuesday.

Sims said MVP has “been a bad actor this whole time and should not get another chance to harm Southwest Virginia communities and water resources.”

Emily Satterwhite, a professor of Appalachian studies at Virginia Tech, said the crowd on Saturday represented a multi-state movement of people, “all operating with different sets of strategies, but all working towards the same goal of environmental justice.”

Satterwhite once locked herself to construction equipment for 14 hours,  a fairly common tactic documented and organized by groups like Appalachians Against Pipelines. Others have spent literally hundreds of days sitting in trees  on the pipeline’s path. 

And others like advocacy group ARTivism, use art - massive water protector puppets, songs written about pipeline resistors, banners - and gatherings like the one they organized on Saturday.

Satterwhite says the key has been the scale of the movement and the willingness of people to step up when someone else needs to rest.

“That’s been a beautiful part in having so many partners in so many parts of the state,” she said. “I mean, it’s really hard staring the climate crisis in the face, day after day,” and having lots of volunteers has been critical to maintaining their work.

An uncertain future

Following the board’s decision to grant the permit, the pipeline’s future is still uncertain. The Army Corps of Engineers has yet to make a decision on the federal permit that corresponds with what Virginia’s board considered today. That permit also applies to the pipeline’s water crossings in West Virginia.

Previously, the Environmental Protection Agency called for the Army Corps to deny the permit in. Since that denial recommendation, they have offered more direction to approve the permit with conditions to ensure Clean Water Act compliance.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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