Reigning in Pipeline Developers is Proving Difficult in Richmond

Feb 26, 2020

Democratic Delegate Chris Hurst of the New River Valley.
Credit AP Photo / Steve Helber

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would double fines for water-quality violations of companies that build natural gas pipelines.

Delegate Christ Hurst of the New River Valley arrived here in Richmond this year hoping to create new oversight for natural gas pipelines like the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which paid a $2 million penalty for environmental violations. He was hoping to get the State Water Control Board to issue a stop work order if problems mounted, and that idea was approved by the House of Delegates.

But it floundered in the Senate, where Democratic Senator Chap Petersen raised concerns. 

“I just have a concern about having a part-time citizen make this type of stop work order on a billion dollar project, and I’m more than sympathetic to the underlying issue," Petersen said. "I just don’t think you can have a civilian board have that type of power. But that’s just me.” 

As it turns out, it wasn’t just him. Every senator on the committee except Jennifer McClellan of Richmond voted against giving the Water Control Board the power to issue stop work orders. They also voted down an attempt to increase the number of projects the board would oversee. They did, however, approve a bill that Hurst introduced to double penalties for violating water quality. 

“That’s a good start," Hurst said. "But we are nowhere near finished in trying to bring equity and fairness to this process.”

“Why do you think you’re having such a hard time with this,” asked reporter Michael Pope.

To which Hurst responded, “This is one of those unfortunate not in my backyard situations where if it’s not in your backyard you don’t really seem to care about it.”

The House and Senate have now approved a bill that would increase the penalty for violating state water control law from $32,500 per violation to $50,000 per violation. After the House approves some technical amendments, it’ll be on its way to the governor’s desk. Meanwhile, Hurst says, he’ll be back again next year to try and give the State Water Quality Control Board more authority.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.