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Water permit application under scrutiny

This photo from early June shows an area along the route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline near U.S. 19 in Braxton County that was damaged by flooding. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recommended to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the Corps not issue a key water permit for the project, which has already drawn fines from West Virginia and Virginia state environmental regulators totaling over $2.7 million for water quality violations.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not issue a key water permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline until it makes less environmentally damaging changes to the project.

The EPA 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,” EPA wetlands branch chief Jeffrey Lapp wrote to Corps Huntington District regulatory branch chief Michael Hatten in the letter.

Lapp concluded that the project, “as proposed, may not comply” with guidelines set by a section of the federal Clean Water Act that regulates the discharge of dredged or fill material into navigable waters, including wetlands.

The Corps makes permit decisions for project applicants seeking approval under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and enforces Section 404 permit provisions. The EPA develops guidance in evaluating permit applications, also reviewing and commenting on applications.

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.

The 303-mile natural gas pipeline project traveling from Northwestern West Virginia to Southern Virginia proposes discharges that would permanently affect 1,198 linear feet of streams and half an acre of wetlands and temporarily affect 38,312 linear feet and 13.92 acres of wetlands in both states.

The EPA recommended that any permit require a restoration plan for temporary effects, including post-construction monitoring, that documents baseline conditions and explains how all temporary fills will be removed.

In a statement Monday, Huntington District spokesman Chuck Minsker said the Corps will take the EPA’s comments into consideration as it evaluates all Clean Water Act-related concerns with the project.

There is no deadline for a ruling on a Section 404 permit for the pipeline crossing Wetzel, Harrison, Doddridge, Lewis, Braxton, Webster, Nicholas, Greenbrier, Fayette, Summers and Monroe counties in West Virginia.

In a letter to Hatten dated Monday, Mountain Valley deputy general counsel Todd Normane said Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, the joint venture that owns the pipeline, is reviewing the EPA’s comments and plans to provide responses to the Corps that will address the EPA’s recommendations.

“We are confident that the current application with our additional responses will satisfy [the] EPA’s recommendations,” Normane wrote.

Environmentalists applauded the EPA’s comments, touting them as proof that the project’s effects on waters across West Virginia and Virginia would be as unavoidable as they are unacceptable.

“[The] EPA’s letter clearly states what we have been saying all along,” West Virginia Rivers Coalition staff scientist Autumn Crowe said in a statement. “Our most precious rivers and their headwaters are at risk of further degradation by MVP.”

“The EPA’s concerns mirror what community members and experts have been saying for years regarding the severity and extent of harm to waterways and wetlands in both states from the MVP,” Amy Adams, North Carolina program manager of Appalachian Voices, said in a statement.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality reissued a denial of a water quality permit for the planned Southgate extension of the project in April, citing legal challenges that the mainline pipeline faces.

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 to 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.

Also pending are reviews of Mountain Valley Pipeline’s applications to West Virginia and Virginia state environmental regulators for water quality certification under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. That section prohibits a federal agency from issuing permits for water discharges unless states where the discharges would originate approve or waive certification.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s decision regarding its water quality certification is due Nov. 29. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s decision is due Dec. 31.

“The EPA’s clearly articulated concerns should also send a loud message to Virginia and West Virginia regulators who are reviewing their own water-crossing permit applications for the project — those permits must be denied,” Adams said.

Mountain Valley Pipeline announced Monday afternoon that it plans to buy more than $150 million in carbon offsets during its first 10 years of operations, once the pipeline is placed in service.

The joint venture said the carbon offsets would be generated by a methane abatement program at a coal mine in Southwest Virginia near the West Virginia border through an agreement with a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, a wind and solar energy generator.

Carbon offsets are reductions in carbon emissions made to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. Carbon offset credits can be certified by governments or independent bodies to represent an emission reduction of one metric ton of greenhouse gas emissions.

Mountain Valley would buy carbon offsets expected to be equivalent to 90% of the greenhouse gas emissions stemming from the pipeline’s operations over a 10-year period.

Mountain Valley said it is pursuing other greenhouse gas abatement projects in West Virginia, including an effort to address abandoned and orphaned gas wells anticipated to achieve carbon offsets of an additional 10% or more.

The methane abatement project would be constructed in phases, with the first phase expected to come online in summer 2022 and phase two in spring 2023.

“MVP’s methane abatement plans will bring significant environmental benefits to the Commonwealth of Virginia and the state of West Virginia,” Matt Schafer, vice president of interstate pipelines for NextEra Energy Resources, predicted in a statement. “Aside from the construction jobs needed to complete the final portion of MVP, most of which we expect to be union jobs, we are also thrilled that our methane abatement project will create additional construction jobs for the region.”

Natalie Cox, spokeswoman for the pipeline’s Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-based primary interest owner Equitrans Midstream Corp., previously estimated that total greenhouse gas emissions stemming from Mountain Valley Pipeline operations would amount to 48 million metric tons per year, assuming a 100-year basis for converting methane and nitrous oxide into a carbon dioxide equivalent.

Patrick Grenter, associate director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign, blasted Mountain Valley Pipeline’s announcement Monday evening.

“Decision makers and the public should not be fooled: This offset scheme does nothing to change the fact that MVP is a dirty fossil fuel project that would pollute our communities and exacerbate the climate crisis,” Grenter said in a statement. “Not only would this plan do nothing to mitigate the pollution and public health effects on frontline communities due to fracking, it also wouldn’t address the massive climate impact of actually burning the fracked gas this pipeline would transport.”

The United Nations Environment Programme, in 2019, supported carbon offsets as a temporary measure leading up to 2030 but warned, they are “not our get-out-of-jail free card,” urging the world to transition away from carbon for good to limit global warming.

Reach Mike Tony at, 304-348-1236 or follow

@Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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