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Virginia regulators grant key approvals to Atlantic Coast pipeline, clearing the way for construction

A path cleared for the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline is seen Aug. 8 in the Piedmont area of Virginia.
A path cleared for the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline is seen Aug. 8 in the Piedmont area of Virginia. (Timothy C. Wright for The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Virginia regulators say they have cleared the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline to begin construction on its 300-mile track across the state with the approval of three crucial environmental protection plans.

The state Department of Environmental Quality said late Friday that it had signed off on plans to control erosion and sediment, manage water runoff from storms and limit damage to the fragile “karst” geography of certain mountainous areas as blasting and digging for the natural gas pipeline gets underway.

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Dominion Energy, which is leading a consortium of companies in building the $6 billion project, said that it will now seek final approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to get work started.

“This is a major step forward for the project,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said in a news release. “We’re eager to get to work in Virginia so we can build on the significant progress we’ve made in West Virginia and North Carolina.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will run about 600 miles from West Virginia, into Virginia’s Highland County, across the Shenandoah region and through central Virginia into North Carolina. Construction has already begun in the other two states, and some tree-cutting took place in Virginia early this year.

But the state DEQ had held up on final approval of the key environmental-protection plans as regulators wrestled with the unusual demands of a gigantic, 42-inch-diameter pipeline that would run through steep terrain and make thousands of waterway crossings.

Another major project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, got similar approval a year ago and is further along in construction. That project, which is being built by a consortium led by EQT Midstream Partners of Pittsburgh, follows a 300-mile route from West Virginia through the far southwest of Virginia and into North Carolina.

Environmentalists vehemently oppose both projects, as do many landowners whose property is being taken against their wishes through eminent domain. Several legal challenges have led federal judges to delay the projects at various points this year.

This month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put a stoppage on permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline to cross waterways in Virginia.

Against that background, conservation groups condemned the state’s approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline plans on Friday night.

“The certification comes even as evidence mounts in Southwest Virginia that state regulations did little to keep communities safe from the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which has clogged some of our state’s cleanest waters with mud and sediment as crews trenched across steep, rugged, flashflood-prone terrain,” the Virginia League of Conservation Voters said in a news release.

David Sligh, a former DEQ scientist who now works with the Wild Virginia advocacy group, took issue with the department’s claim that the project is now cleared for construction. The State Water Control Board, an oversight panel appointed by the governor, said in preliminary review of the plans last year that it wanted a chance for final approval once the DEQ completed its work.

The DEQ “is attempting to usurp the authority that legally rests with the citizen members of the Board,” Sligh said via email. Over the summer, a separate advisory panel appointed by the governor urged a halt to pipeline activity until several problems could be resolved.

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But the administration of Gov. Ralph Northam (D) appears to have signed off on the department’s approval. Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickler said in the department’s news release that the regulators’ “comprehensive review allows us to remain confident that these final construction plans will protect natural resources.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline still faces at least one more significant state hurdle: The Virginia Air Pollution Control Board is set to act next month on an air-quality permit for a compressor station in Buckingham County.

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That facility, which would keep the gas flowing through the pipeline, is proposed for a historic African American community called Union Hill and has drawn fierce opposition from residents and advocates who say it poses threats to health and safety.