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Erosion concerns

Pictured is what Mountain Valley Watch, a group that tracks environmental issues regarding the Mountain Valley Pipeline, identified as a problem area south of Copley Road in Lewis County along the pipeline right-of-way in January. The group reported collapsing slopes and sediment in a stream crossing there in a filing with federal regulators. Those arguing against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granting a key permit to pipeline developers during a public hearing Monday cited erosion and water sedimentation concerns.

Opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline comprised the vast majority of commenters during a public hearing on a key application for the project.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held the virtual public comment hearing Monday evening to collect West Virginia input on an application from Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, the joint venture that owns the pipeline, for a permit that would allow for discharging dredged and fill material into streams and wetlands.

Those speaking out against the pipeline, which would transport natural gas 303 miles from Wetzel County to Southern Virginia, pointed to the project’s past water quality violations and concerns expressed by federal environmental regulators about its potential water-crossing effects.

A minority of gas and oil industry and labor union representatives defended the pipeline and urged issuance of the permit, arguing that the project is a job creator and potential energy provider too valuable to be halted for good.

Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-based Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC proposed a 125-foot-wide temporary right-of-way to construct the pipeline and a 50-foot-wide permanent right-of-way to maintain and operate the pipeline once in service. The project would result in the permanent discharge of dredged and fill material into more than 1,100 linear feet of streams in West Virginia.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has defined fill material as including rock, soil, clay, construction debris and materials used to create any structure in waters of the United States, a broad term that includes all interstate waters or waters that could be used by interstate travelers.

Suzanne Vance of Weston, on whose farm road Mountain Valley has a temporary road easement at Second Big Run in Lewis County, said the area is unsafe for boring — a trenchless construction method that Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff said in August would trigger fewer environmental effects than open-cut crossings.

“All I see MVP doing is cleaning up slips and washouts,” Vance said.

Dave Bassage, New River Gorge program coordinator for the New River Conservancy, a tri-state group aiming to protect the New River watershed, said requirements for the proposed permit need to be more stringent. The group’s main concerns, Bassage said, are sedimentation in the Greenbrier and New rivers, as well as the potential release of construction fluids and hazardous materials that could harm aquatic ecosystems.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection proposed a consent order earlier this year requiring Mountain Valley to pay a $303,000 fine for violating permits by failing to control erosion and sediment-laden water. That penalty followed a $266,000 fine from the same regulators in 2019 for similar erosion and water contamination issues.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality fined Mountain Valley $2.15 million that same year for water quality violations.

The EPA recommended in May that the Corps of Engineers not issue the permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline until it makes less-environmentally damaging changes to the project.

The agency questioned in a May 27 letter to the Corps whether pipeline developers had done enough to avoid adverse water-crossing effects.

“[The] EPA is concerned that the applicant has not yet demonstrated that the discharges from the project, as proposed, will not cause or contribute to water quality standards exceedances or significant degradation of receiving waters,” agency wetlands branch chief Jeffrey Lapp wrote to Corps Huntington District regulatory branch chief Michael Hatten in the letter.

The May 27 letter was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Lewisburg-based environmental law firm Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

Bassage alluded to the project’s history of water quality violations and the EPA’s concerns with the planned permit in voicing the New River Conservancy’s worry over the proposal.

“[I]t’s clear that, to date, the MVP has not shown that their existing [best management practices] are adequate,” Bassage said.

Charlie Burd, executive director of the Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia, urged the Corps to approve the permit.

“West Virginia workers need construction jobs, producers need markets for their natural gas, consumers need a reliable and affordable form of energy, and the state of West Virginia relies on the tax revenues generated by such infrastructure development,” Burd said.

Chuck Parker, representative of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 132, said the union has many workers on the project, for which pipeline developers have estimated work is more than 90% complete.

“We have pipe in the ground that’s been welded that’s going to be there,” Parker said. “Let’s get it done. Let’s put people to work. Let’s bring money back to the state of West Virginia.”

Legal challenges from environmentalist groups have stalled the project, including one that prompted Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC to abandon a blanket water permit issued by the Corps of Engineers and seek individual water permits.

The now-$6.2 billion project originally was scheduled for completion by the end of 2018, at a cost of just $3.5 billion. The project’s targeted summer 2022 in-service date is based on receiving all water-crossing approvals and the lifting of a remaining exclusion zone around the Jefferson National Forest by the end of 2021.

The pipeline is slated to transport up to 2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations to markets in the mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions of the United States.

The Corps is reviewing the application under the authority of Section 10 of the federal Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

There is no deadline for a ruling on a Section 404 permit for the pipeline.

The Corps also is holding a Virginia public hearing on the same application from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at or by dialing 888-251-2949 or 215-861-0694 (access code: 3683150#).

The Corps is still accepting comments on the application.

All written comments should be submitted electronically by email at CELRP by midnight on Nov. 19. Mailed comments must be postmarked no later than Nov. 19 and sent to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Huntington District, ATTN: CELRH-RD-E, Public Notice: LRH-2015-00592-GBR, LRP-2015-798, NAO-2015-0898, 502 Eighth St., Huntington, WV 25701-2070.

Mike Tony covers energy and the environment. He can be reached at 304-348-1236 or Follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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