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DEQ's Unprecedented Move to Reconsider MVP Permit

Kurt Holtz

With construction of the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline nearly complete, the project still faces several challenges.  Lawsuits have been filed on its right to move forward – from questions of eminent domain to violations of federal and state permit issues.  But the biggest obstacle to the Mountain Valley pipeline may prove to be the mountains and valleys themselves, and the people working to protect them. 

After pipeline construction began last February, opponents to it set out to document something they believed to be true; this part of Appalachia, with its steep mountains and porous karst terrain, would be impossible for construction crews to cross, without serious harm to rivers and streams.

“The 300-plus violations that are in that lawsuit are predominantly documented by citizens," according to Mara Robbins with a group called Preserve Floyd. “Citizen scientists, citizen documenters, people who learned how to download solo locator  (https://solocator.com) on their phone so they have time stamped GPS documentation that is able to be submitted.”

Those reports and Department of Environmental Quality’s own monitoring, which according to a spokeswoman for DEQ, involves “2 inspectors per spread, 8 to 10 hours per day, 6 days per week, with 1 to 2 staff in the field, Tuesday through Thursday mid-day.  After January 28, 2019, we will add an inspector working that will be there Monday Through Friday,” found, that despite promises to the contrary, pipeline construction is threatening water quality in some cases.

Then, last month, what most activists thought would never happen, happened:  The Virginia State Water Control Board decided to reconsider the pipeline’s certification to continue construction.

“We are in uncharted territory here,’ says Tammy Belinski, a lawyer who has worked on several legal challenges for a variety of anti-pipeline groups.  “There’s no precedent for what’s occurring now on the (Clean Water Act Section Water Quality) 401 certification for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.”  This has never happened before, so I don’t know what to expect.”

She says, “It is remarkable that the current (Virginia Water Control) board members, on December 13th (2018) meeting finally took the citizens’ concerns to heart and decided to reconsider whether there is reasonable assurance that water quality standards can, will, are being protected during the construction process for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. And, we don’t know what that process will be.”

“What’s unfortunate,” She adds, is that the board’s decision to reconsider the 401 certification is “meaningless while construction” on the 3-hundred mile, 42-inch wide pipeline continues.”

That’s the new hurdle for pipeline opponents. Former Virginia Water Control Board member Roberta Kellam wanted to see what’s going on in the mountains and streams here, for herself. “It’s great how everyone has welcomed me here. Thank you for letting me take a look at your farm,” she told one landowner whose farm is a stone’s throw from the pipeline constructions site.

Kellam served two, 4-year terms on Virginia’s, Water Control Board, a volunteer body of citizens from around the state. She voted no on whether its water quality standards were strong enough to protect the water in the Mountain Valley Pipeline project. She was not re appointed to a third term

“ I had promised that I would come, when I was on the state water control boar.,  I asked the staff if I could do a site visit because so much of what we do as board members can be very abstract and it just makes a big difference to see how things are, on the ground and how things really work, vs the theoretical.”  She spent the better part of the day touring sites where violations of regulations had been documented, sometimes in the presence or reporters, and other times without.

It was Kellam’s first visit to southwestern Virginia.  She lives on the other end of the state, the eastern shore.  She says she was surprised important sources of fresh water compromised in the construction process.

“It’s a different world in the Chesapeake Bay watershed; where I live, compared to the regulations and the standards that you have here, even though your water is very important. You know, we cut a tree down, we can’t even clear land within a hundred feet of the water because you need the trees to protect your water quality.”

She said she felt it was important to remind everyone in Virginia that the water here is ‘everyone’s water. “I felt like, my gosh, we need to make a connection from the mountains to the coast with people who care about water.”  

Later in the day, Kellam spoke with a crowd of activists at the Bent Mountain Center in Roanoke County.  The event was part celebration for the work those gathered have done, and part rallying cry, for what’s next. “If governor Northam is listening, I hope that he and secretary (Mathew)Strickler might consider coming out to this county and actually see for themselves.”

The Mountain Valley pipeline put out a statement saying in part, it ‘…remains focused on responsible and safe construction of this important pipeline project, and that it appreciates and respects the state’s permitting process and continuum oversite.’ It expects to have the pipeline in service sometime this year (2019). No date has been set for the water control board hearing to reconsider its permit.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.