The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia regulators consider revoking permits for two major gas pipelines, but settle for stricter enforcement

There are many 
Many homemade signs line roads near Bent Mountain, Va., that protest against the Mountain Valley Pipeline Project. Activists nearly persuaded state officials to revoke permits for that project and another, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
There are many Many homemade signs line roads near Bent Mountain, Va., that protest against the Mountain Valley Pipeline Project. Activists nearly persuaded state officials to revoke permits for that project and another, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Pictures of mud-choked mountain streams pushed Virginia regulators to consider revoking permits for two major natural gas pipelines during a hearing Tuesday, but in the end the State Water Control Board simply pushed for stricter enforcement of state regulations.

About 150 pipeline opponents from across the state were outraged that the board pulled back after coming so close — some in tears, others yelling at board members as they left the hearing room. Capitol Police officers formed a line across the front of the chamber in a state office building to keep the angry crowd away from staff members.

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“We hoped that we were close. I thought that we should be closer because of the body of comments and evidence that people submitted,” said David Sligh, a retired state environmental engineer who now works with the Wild Virginia conservation group.

Members of the board had approved erosion and sediment control permits for one of the projects, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, in December, but agreed to reexamine the issue in light of reports that construction was causing extensive damage to the rugged mountain terrain.

That pipeline is the shorter of the two projects, designed to carry gas 300 miles from West Virginia through Virginia’s southwest. The other project, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, will cut a 600-mile path from West Virginia through the center of Virginia and into North Carolina.

State regulators have yet to give final approval to the erosion and sediment control permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and work there is not as far along.

Both projects have faced setbacks this summer. Federal judges have ruled that federal agencies granted several permits without full review, and regulators have stopped all work on both pipelines until those issues are resolved.

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Tuesday’s hearing was aimed at examining whether Virginia erred in accepting blanket federal water quality certification for the two pipelines rather than conducting a separate review of every point at which the projects will cross a stream or river.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had said early in his campaign last year that the state should conduct its own review, but the state Department of Environmental Quality concluded that doing so would waste state resources and simply duplicate the federal process.

The State Water Control Board is appointed by the governor to oversee policy decisions, while the DEQ carries them out. Staff members for the DEQ on Tuesday gave the seven-member board a step-by-step presentation on how the federal permitting standards echo state standards.

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In nearly three hours of testimony, DEQ officials defended their work and explained how they were addressing concerns raised by residents in the path of the pipelines.

Over the summer, the department received thousands of emails and letters from residents commenting on the water quality aspect of the pipeline projects. Board members seemed most concerned about several photographs and descriptions of places where construction on the Mountain Valley Pipeline had led to severe erosion, sometimes clogging streams with mud or burying surroundings under as many as 11 inches of sediment.

Staff members said that by law, projects are required to prepare for rainstorms of a severity that might come along every two years and last 24 hours, but they acknowledged that recent weather has brought those events far more often — although they could not quantify how much.

During half an hour set aside for members of the public to address the board, a long line of property owners and environmental activists spelled out the predicament.

“These incidents are not minor, they’re not short term and they’re not rare,” said Ben Luckett of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

Kathy Chandler, who lives on Bent Mountain outside Roanoke, described how the pipeline there is already sitting in the unusual “perched aquifer” that provides drinking water for her and all her neighbors. Because the pipes are coated with toxic chemicals, “you’re putting a Superfund [cleanup site] in an aquifer,” she said. “That’s not reasonable assurance of water quality for me.”

Several board members seemed disturbed by the litany of complaints.

“We can’t have people up there where that’s their only source of drinking water,” board member Timothy G. Hayes said, referring to Bent Mountain. “The board needs to know from staff as soon as possible what the deal is up there.”

Board member Robert H. Wayland III made a motion that the panel begin considering revoking the water quality certificates for both pipelines and starting over with a stream-by-stream analysis.

But Hayes warned that legal counsel had said the board had limited authority to revoke its certification and that federal law may allow the pipeline work to continue anyway.

Wayland’s motion failed on a voice vote, 3 to 4.

Hayes then moved that staff members be instructed to share concerns with federal regulators, to enforce state environmental regulations as strictly as possible and to look for ways to apply further standards to environmental oversight. That motion passed unanimously.

Officials with the Mountain Valley Pipeline said they were pleased by the decision.