RICHMOND — Protesters shouted "shame!" Thursday as the State Water Control Board voted 5 to 2 to approve permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, one of two controversial natural gas pipelines proposed for rural parts of the state.
The action is the last major regulatory hurdle for the project, which is backed by a consortium of companies led by EQT Midstream Partners. The other major natural gas project — the larger Atlantic Coast Pipeline — faces the same review Monday and Tuesday.
Opponents who had excoriated the Mountain Valley Pipeline during a public hearing Wednesday threatened to file suit to stop it after Thursday's action. "I think there's a very strong case for that," said Ben Luckett, a lawyer with Appalachian Mountain Advocates.
Both pipeline projects stir intense anger in the southern and western parts of the state, where environmentalists say they threaten fragile mountain ecosystems and land rights advocates question the companies' use of eminent domain to take property.
But the companies have argued that they provide needed capacity for distributing fracked natural gas, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has backed them as crucial for economic development.
Dozens of state police officers stood guard as the State Water Board voted before a crowd of about 200 people.
"Shame on you!" several yelled.
"We know where you [expletive] live!" shouted one man, who was immediately hustled out by state troopers.
The state Department of Environmental Quality, which had recommended approval earlier this year subject to a few technical conditions, called it "the most rigorous regulatory process to which a proposed pipeline ever has been subjected in Virginia."
Both pipelines became an issue in this year's state elections. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said he would support them if they withstood strict and transparent environmental scrutiny.
Several Northam campaign events, as well as his election-night victory party, were disrupted by anti-pipeline protesters. And many in the wave of Democrats elected to the House of Delegates on Nov. 7 are opposed to the pipelines and the political influence of powerful utilities, such as Dominion Energy, the main backer of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Opponents unsuccessfully argued for a delay in a decision to allow for more consideration of project details. "The big question to us is, what's the rush?" Luckett said.
But the companies said the process was anything but rushed. "We have worked to design a route with the least overall impact to landowners and communities," Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for EQT Corp., said via email. "In doing so, the (Mountain Valley Pipeline) team has worked closely with state and federal environmental agencies to provide accurate, comprehensive information that would allow for a thorough environmental review of the project."
Many of the opponents said they would be back Monday for the hearing on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which traverses about 600 miles and passes through the central and southern portions of the state.
The state environmental department has recommended approval for it, as well. The Water Control Board is scheduled to cast its vote Tuesday.