The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection scheduled a public hearing for a pipeline permit in Jefferson County, but then canceled the hearing over “security concerns” and quietly issued the permit.
Residents and lawmakers in Jefferson County had requested a public hearing for the 4.85-mile-long natural gas pipeline, which would be built by Mountaineer Gas and deliver gas to Rockwool, a controversial 460,000-square-foot coal- and gas-fired manufacturing plant being built in the City of Ranson, off Route 9.
The DEP had initially scheduled a public hearing for the extension project for Feb. 21 at the Ranson Civic Center, in Jefferson County. Five days before the event, the DEP issued a press release citing logistical concerns “raised by local officials.”
“The WVDEP was aware that citizens had concerns and planned a discretionary hearing accordingly. However, upon notification of security concerns, the WVDEP canceled the hearing for the safety of all anticipated attendees,” Casey Korbini, deputy director for remediation programs for the DEP, said in an email.
Korbini did not answer questions about what kinds of concerns were raised. The City of Ranson also didn’t respond to questions about the concerns.
Public hearings aren’t required under the State General Water Pollution Control Permit. But the director can hold a public hearing “whenever a finding is made, on the basis of requests, that there is a significant degree of public interest on issues relevant to the site registration permit application and this facility’s coverage under the General Permit,” the legal ad, printed in the The Martinsburg Journal, says.
In the public notice, the DEP asked that comments be addressed to the DEP’s Charleston office, and said the public comment period would span from Jan. 25 to Feb. 25. The notice said a public hearing was scheduled for Feb. 21 at the Ranson Civic Center.
A week before the hearing, the DEP issued a press release, canceling the event.
Residents wrote to the DEP asking that the meeting be rescheduled.
“I believe it is an incredibly vital part of our democracy, that the public be involved in a process that directly affects the safety of their water and environment,” Judy Do, of Loudon County, Virginia, wrote March 6.
“What must be noted here is that our groups have already shown ‘a significant degree of public interest.’ Many county residents emailed the DEP in November and December of 2018 to request a hearing. That is why the DEP originally granted the pipeline hearing that was postponed!!” Cindy Heller, of Harpers Ferry, wrote March 10.
“We know that the WV DEP has received more than enough requests to merit making the trip and holding the hearing. Please honor those requests and reschedule the hearing,” Lew Prillaman, of Shepherdstown, wrote March 14.
In a phone call recorded by Tracy Cannon, who lives in the Eastern Panhandle, Rick Adams, Technical Analyst at the DEP, said there might be another hearing, but the DEP was looking for an appropriate venue.
“They said they could not guarantee their safety,” Adams said.
“Your safety is quite secure, we have no interest in attacking you in any way,” Cannon said to Adams on the tape-recorded call.
Later that month, Delegates Sammi Brown, D-Jefferson, and John Doyle, D-Jefferson, met with Scott Mandirola and Jason Wandling, deputy secretary for external affairs and general counsel, respectively, for the DEP.
According to Doyle, Mandirola and Wandling expressed interest in a public hearing.
But on March 29, the DEP’s Division of Water and Waste Management issued a general water pollution control permit, which regulates stormwater runoff, without rescheduling the meeting.
“I can only speculate, but the history of that department since [Austin Caperton] became [DEP] secretary is, in my opinion, is one of caving to industry,” Doyle said in an interview.
“The purpose of the pipeline is to extend an existing utility. The WVDEP understands that the Rockwool facility is one of the planned customers for the extension; however, the WVDEP suggests that you direct questions concerning expected customers and users to Mountaineer Gas Company,” Korbini said.
A spokesman for Mountaineer Gas said the project was being built to meet “growing residential and commercial demand in the region.”
In a responsiveness summary after the permit was issued, the DEP responded to a series of comments about the permit. Among them, commenters said they were concerned about the project’s crossing karst terrain and stormwater runoff due to construction. A karst assessment has been completed for the project route, and areas will be restored to their original conditions, the DEP answered.
“Only 36 comments were received, and the WVDEP made every attempt possible to ensure that all questions/concerns related to the application were addressed. Public hearings are not required under the State General Water Pollution Control Permit,” Korbini said in an email.
Construction on the pipeline extension has started, Korbini said.
That’s not good enough, Regina Hendrix, chair of the Eastern Panhandle Sierra Club, said in a prepared statement.
“The WV Department of Environmental Protection has utterly betrayed Eastern Panhandle residents with their approval of the permit for the Rockwool Pipeline Extension,” she said.