A proposed natural gas pipeline through mountainous western Virginia cleared a key hurdle last week, as the State Water Control Board approved water-related permits needed to begin building the 106-mile segment through the state.
The board’s approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline on Thursday, after two days of meetings in Richmond, was seen by environmentalists as an indicator of how the citizen regulatory body would rule next week on another gas conduit, the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would cut through the state’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The state Department of Environmental Quality had recommended that the board approve permits certifying that the Mountain Valley Pipeline would not harm state water quality, and the citizen board agreed — though not unanimously. Two of the board’s seven members, Nissa Dean and Roberta Kellam, cast dissenting votes.
Environmental groups condemned the Mountain Valley decision, but said they still hoped the board would come to a different conclusion on the second project.
“We applaud the efforts of several members who expressed concern that the draft permit would not provide reasonable assurance, as required by law, that water quality would be protected,” stated Tom Cormons, executive director of one of the leading groups opposed to the project, Appalachian Voices, in a press release. “We are thoroughly disappointed by the board’s decision.”
The approval is the last major hurdle for the natural gas pipeline project that cuts across the southwest corner of the state, primarily crossing tributaries to the Roanoke River. The larger Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, backed by Dominion Energy, faces the same review on Monday and Tuesday.
Opposition to the projects has been building since they were first announced in 2014, with hundreds of citizens participating in rallies and thousands submitting comments during the permit process.
About 85 people commented during the first of two days devoted to the Mountain Valley project decision this week, almost all of them landowners or environmentalists concerned about water quality impacts, according to those who attended. Some environmental groups have already threatened to file suit over the decision.
In its approval, the board did add an amendment that attempts to preserve its right to examine stream crossings at a later date, though environmental groups are dubious about whether those attempts to make changes later would be effective.
Greg Buppert, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the board does have the chance to essentially reverse its decision when it reviews the Atlantic Coast Pipeline next week. One option would entail sending the plans back to that project’s backer, Dominion Energy, to have its water quality protections improved.
“As Virginia’s watchdog for water quality, the board must ensure that Dominion doesn’t abuse its political power to push through a risky and unnecessary project like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” Buppert wrote in a press release, summarizing environmentalists’ concerns about the project.
DEQ officials have called the regulatory process “the most rigorous” to date for a pipeline project in Virginia. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has said he will support whatever decision the state board makes regarding the pipelines, though environmental groups lobbied him during the election to do more.
“DEQ has worked closely with our attorneys to make sure that we have met all the requirements of state and federal law for which DEQ is responsible,” DEQ officials wrote on Twitter late Thursday. “If this project proceeds, we expect to hold the developers to the highest standards for which they are accountable.”
Groups concerned about the projects’ impact on Chesapeake Bay water quality have seen this first decision as precedent-setting for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which cuts through several Virginia counties in the Bay watershed.
That pipeline would run 600 miles from West Virginia to Norfolk and eastern North Carolina, with a capacity to transport 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas daily. The project would require a 125-foot-wide cleared construction right-of-way and a 75-foot-wide cleared permanent right-of-way throughout its length, according to a review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Pat Calvert, a policy and campaigns manager for the Virginia Conservation Network, which represents a coalition of environmental groups in the state, said citizens should still voice their concerns at next week’s pipeline meetings.
“Being there, just a physical presence, makes a difference,” Calvert said. “If the board sees that people are there, whether or not they commented or could appear on day one of the meeting, their presence will mean a great deal.”
The meeting about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will begin at 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 11 and continue Dec. 12 at Trinity Family Life Center, 3601 Dill Road in Richmond, a venue that officials believe will be large enough to hold the expected audience.