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Hurricane could devastate Virginia pipeline project that is already struggling with changing weather

Archaeologists search for archaeological artifacts on the spot where the Mountain Valley Pipeline is planned. Hurricane Florence threatens to severely damage the construction sites along the route for the pipeline.
Archaeologists search for archaeological artifacts on the spot where the Mountain Valley Pipeline is planned. Hurricane Florence threatens to severely damage the construction sites along the route for the pipeline. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Work crews are racing to prepare for catastrophic rain from Hurricane Florence in mountainous areas where a major natural gas pipeline is under construction, as an abnormally wet summer has already overcome some efforts to prevent runoff and erosion.

The situation places a spotlight on the unusually demanding environment being crossed by the Mountain Valley Pipeline, as well as the stress being put on state regulators to keep up after years of budget cuts.

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Work had resumed on the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Southwest Virginia at the end of last month after a federal agency lifted a moratorium. A federal court had suspended some permits for the 303-mile project, but those issues are being resolved.

Now, though, the company leading the effort said all work has stopped again and resources are being diverted to shore up construction zones against flooding and possible wind damage.

“We are taking all possible precautions in Virginia to ensure the safety of our crews and communities, as well as to protect and maintain erosion and sediment controls along MVP’s right-of-way,” said a statement from EQT Midstream Partners, the Pittsburgh company driving the pipeline project.

Pipeline construction involves clearing trees in a 125-foot-wide swath up and down mountains, digging pits for the 42-inch-wide pipe, crossing or tunneling under streams and rivers and moving earth along steep slopes. Managing both runoff from storms as well as keeping erosion out of pristine waterways is a massive job, even without the threat of catastrophic rainfall.

Landowners affected by the construction route as well as environmental groups who have protested the pipeline are bracing for the worst.

“I have great fears about what’s going to happen in the next several days,” said David Sligh, who is retired from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and now works with the Wild Virginia advocacy group.

The pipeline’s route through extraordinarily rugged terrain and steep slopes crisscrossed by streams has already caused significant issues with erosion and runoff. State officials have said that while the project is meeting all construction guidelines, those guidelines are based on standards that do not account for recent changes in weather patterns.

At a hearing last month in Richmond, members of the State Water Control Board asked staff about photos showing numerous Mountain Valley Pipeline sites where streams had turned brown with runoff or areas were choked with thick layers of eroded sediment.

“Let me highlight one thing,” said Ben Leach, who oversees storm water management for the state DEQ. State and federal standards call for work sites to be protected against 24-hour rain events of a type that occur, statistically, once every two years, he said.

“And most of the rain events that we have seen to date are exceeding those two-year, 24 hour storm events,” Leach told the board.

In some cases, a level of rain that once may have occurred every two years has instead happened more than once in a month, staff members said.

“There have certainly been conversations that given precipitation and climatic changes that . . . maybe there should be a different standard, but at this moment that’s what your regulation says,” Melanie Davenport, the director of water permitting, told the board.

Leach added that the situation is aggravated by the unusually steep slopes being crossed by the Mountain Valley Pipeline. In addition, he said, “One thing that’s unique to these projects is the serious amount of streams that they do cross.”

The Mountain Valley Pipeline and another, even longer project — the Atlantic Coast Pipeline — make thousands of crossings of streams and rivers in rural parts of the state.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline — a 600-mile project led by Dominion Energy — has not progressed to the same stage of construction as it awaits certain permit approvals by state agencies.

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Leach told the board state regulators are doing their best to keep up with the vast construction sites, inspecting crossings and looking for areas that need extra work to guard against erosion and sedimentation. But the Department of Environmental Quality has limited resources.

The state has three full-time inspectors and roughly a dozen contract workers, with pairs stationed on rotating shifts at each major pipeline work zone. But a single work zone can stretch for 40 miles or more, over harsh terrain.

Earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed an executive order creating a year-long review of the Department of Environmental Quality, which has reduced staff by 30 percent and seen some $60 million in budget cuts over the past decade.

Critics say the reductions have left DEQ ill-prepared for a pipeline project of such magnitude — let alone two such projects.

But no one may be prepared for what is coming with Hurricane Florence.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline’s builders say they are making extra efforts to prepare, including moving fuel tanks and other equipment from flood plain areas and from nearby streams; evaluating the safety of temporary construction bridges over waterways and removing them if necessary; securing pipe; and installing extra erosion and sediment controls at road crossings.

Given that erosion-control measures have already proved inadequate in some places for current levels of rainfall, Sligh, the department retiree, said the pipeline zones could be devastated by Florence.

“I don’t believe they can, in some of these circumstances, do anything that would be adequate,” he said. “That’s the real crime here, if I can use that word. People have known, the companies have known, DEQ has known that the pollution control measures are inadequate. The fact they’ve been allowed to go forward makes me very angry.”