Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, under pressure from environmentalists to oppose two natural gas pipelines, told voters for weeks that he had won assurances from state regulators that they will increase scrutiny on the projects by assessing environmental impacts along specific sites, instead of relying on a “blanket” approval from federal officials.
But this week, the state agency in charge of the review said it miscommunicated its plan.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will not issue individual permits for every waterway the pipelines cross, but rather rely on the decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers whether the project complies with water quality rules at wetland and stream crossings. State officials say they will scrutinize the projects by evaluating areas outside the purview of the Army Corps, but the extent will be far less than environmental activists had believed.
The reversal complicates Northam’s position in his neck-and-neck June 13 primary race for the nomination against former congressman Tom Perriello.
Perriello is opposed to the pipelines, one of the few policy areas where he clearly differs from Northam. Perriello, who has won praise from environmentalists for his position, has also pledged not to accept campaign donations from Dominion Energy, a sponsor of one of the pipelines and the state’s largest political donor.
Northam, who has accepted more campaign cash from Dominion than any of his rivals and owns shares of the utility, has said he wants a rigorous, transparent review of the environmental impact of the pipelines.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has final say over the project, although state regulators can withhold approval if they determine that it violates clean water protections.
A spokesman for Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, says DEQ’s newly announced approach to reviewing the pipelines still meets his criteria.
“This is a rigorous regulatory process that goes above and beyond what the state has required in the past, leveraging the expertise from the Army Corps while requiring additional conditions to be met through an individual certification issued by the State Water Control Board,” said the spokesman, David Turner.
But environmental activists disagree.
“(Northam) was misled along with the rest of us,” said David Sligh of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition and a former DEQ employee. “That’s not a rigorous review, and he can’t accurately continue to say that. He cannot live up to his pledge that he’s going to push for thorough and transparent processes until he says to DEQ, ‘You have to do what we understood you were going to do.’”
Perriello said he wants more information about DEQ’s plans.
“Frankly, its mindboggling right now to figure out what is even going on,” Perriello said. “This shows why clear leadership on these issues is important.”
The confusion began in early April when DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said the state would require certifications for each segment of the pipelines that crossed waterways.
Both Perriello and Northam hailed the decision, which environmentalists believed would slow down or possibly stop the project.
“I was the one who stepped up and wrote a letter and communciated with the DEQ and recommended that rather than a blanket permit, that we have site-specific permits and because of that, they have decided to do that,” Northam said at a May 2 candidate forum in Arlington.
But after repeated questions from reporters and activists, DEQ officials started backtracking.
They said they would be consult the federal “blanket” permit instead of requiring individual state certifications for every water crossing site. And they said they would increase total scrutiny by reviewing the effects of pipeline construction on areas further out from the waterways that could still affect water quality but would otherwise not be examined by the Army Corps.
Melanie D. Davenport, the head of DEQ’s water permitting division, said regulators didn’t change their approach.
“There was miscommunications in terms of how we explained to the public affairs office what we were doing, and perhaps a lapse in oversight in making sure how they anwered questions,” she said.
Hayden is out of the office this week and unavailable to comment.
Dominion, Virginia’s energy giant and largest political donor, is proposing the Atlantic Coast pipeline that would run 600 miles from West Virginia through Virginia to North Carolina. The second pipeline project would run 300 miles and does not involve Dominion.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who cannot seek consecutive terms under the state constitution, supports the pipeline projects as a source of jobs.