The Mountain Valley Pipeline drew ire from opponents for its history of water quality violations and erosion control issues and praise from supporters for generating jobs during a hearing Tuesday evening on a crucial water permit for the project.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection held the hearing via Zoom teleconference to gather input at the end of a public comment period on Mountain Valley’s request to cross waterbodies throughout the state.
Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, the joint venture that owns the pipeline, still has applications pending with West Virginia and Virginia environmental regulators for about 300 water crossings while it seeks approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to tunnel under 120 additional waterbodies.
Of the two-dozen commenters who addressed the DEP, 17 spoke out against the Mountain Valley Pipeline, arguing that past pipeline water quality violations found by West Virginia and Virginia environmental regulators show the project, long delayed by legal and regulatory challenges, is not fit for permit approval.
West Virginia Rivers Coalition staff scientist Autumn Crowe recalled the nonprofit warning the DEP in 2016 that proposed erosion controls would be ineffective on steep slopes and that construction would damage streams and rivers.
“Now, five years later, I feel like a broken record,” Crowe said. “And I hate to have to say we told you so.”
Crowe predicted that allowing Mountain Valley the permit could result in muddy water causing boil-water advisories, buried trout eggs and clogged fish gills.
Comments from landowners highlighted how the pipeline has adversely affected them.
Lewis County landowner Susie Vance said flooding earlier this month washed out a base of decomposed timber mats and devastated an area where Mountain Valley is planning to tunnel under to construct the pipeline. The flooding had destroyed the pipeline’s silt barriers and fencing.
“I’m still devastated from the whole thing,” Vance said.
Vicki Pierson reported that the pipeline crosses her Northern Braxton County property and that Mountain Valley was directing water onto her property, causing erosion of streambeds downstream and significant discharge into a Burnsville reservoir.
The DEP 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 North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality reissued a denial of a water quality permit for the planned Southgate extension of the project in April.
County and union officials touted the pipeline’s economic impact.
Webster County Commission President Dale Hall and Cindy Whetsell, Lewis County administrator and Economic Development Authority executive director, spoke in support of the pipeline, contending that its economic benefits are too great to be denied.
“We don’t want to see our environment destroyed, but we’ve also gotta have jobs and revenue coming to support these low-income tax base counties,” Hall said.
Chuck Parker, business manager for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 132, Laborers’ Union Local 1149 field representative Kyle Kull and West Virginia Appalachian Laborers’ District Council representative Jessie King argued that the pipeline took care of workers economically and that workers took care of the environment along the pipeline.
State Delegate Adam Burkhammer, R-Lewis, a pipeline construction company owner, summed up his argument in favor of granting the pipeline a water permit succinctly.
“This is who we are in West Virginia,” Burkhammer said. “We mine coal, we drill natural gas and we pipeline it out, and we cut timber. That’s the identity of who we are, and we must continue to support that as we move the economy forward in West Virginia.”
The DEP asked in April for an additional 90 days beyond the 120 days the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave the agency to review Mountain Valley’s water permit request. In March, Virginia environmental regulators requested an additional year to review the pipeline permit application.
The Corps of Engineers will decide by July 2 whether to grant or deny additional time to West Virginia and Virginia regulators to consider water permit requests from the joint venture that owns the pipeline, according to Corps Huntington District spokesman Brian Maka.
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 was originally 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 42-inch-diameter pipeline’s owners have sought and received water permit approval from West Virginia before.
The DEP imposed a special condition, as part of its 2017 certification of water permit approval for the pipeline, stipulating that individual state water quality certification is required for pipelines equal to or greater than 36 inches in diameter or pipelines that cross a river regulated by the federal Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899. Mountain Valley is greater than 36 inches in diameter and is designed to run through three such rivers: the Elk, the Gauley and the Greenbrier.
In 2019, the department revised the special condition to require individual water quality certifications for pipelines greater than 36 inches in diameter or crossing a river regulated by the Rivers and Harbors Act only if the department secretary believes the requirement should be in place.
The department later purported to waive its requirement that the pipeline obtain an individual water quality certification, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the department had to engage in proper notice and comment procedures before it could waive the requirement and threw out verification of the water permit by the Huntington District of the Corps for that reason.
Last year, the department stated that it would not require an individual water quality certification for the pipeline and requested the Corps incorporate the modification into its water permitting for West Virginia. But after Mountain Valley’s abandonment of its Corps-issued blanket water permit, the Corps’ current provision of an individual permit process for the department has the pipeline back under regulator scrutiny.
“Consider that this was a bad idea to begin with,” said James Kotcon, conservation chairman of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, of the state’s past approval of the pipeline. “It is not getting better with age.”