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Still considering water quality

Pictured is an area along the route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline near U.S. 19 in Braxton County damaged by flooding in early June. Opponents of the pipeline say it exacerbates flooding in the area. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has granted West Virginia and Virginia environmental regulators more time to review Mountain Valley’s request for key water permit approval.

West Virginia and Virginia state environmental regulators have gotten what they asked for.

That means Mountain Valley Pipeline developers will have to wait longer for what they’ve requested.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has extended deadlines for the states’ regulators to determine whether the water quality impact of constructing the Mountain Valley Pipeline across hundreds of waterbodies would be too negative to allow.

The Corps on Monday granted extensions to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality that the departments requested as they consider a request from pipeline developers for a key water permit.

The Corps granted West Virginia environmental regulators an additional 150 days, making a decision regarding their water quality certification due Nov. 29. The Corps granted Virginia environmental regulators another 182 days, making their decision due Dec. 31.

Both were originally allotted 120 days to review the water permit request from Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, the joint venture that owns the pipeline. Virginia regulators submitted its request to extend its review period in March. West Virginia regulators followed suit in April.

The Corps had until Friday to decide whether to grant regulators more time to decide. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality had requested an additional year to review the pipeline permit application.

Natalie Cox, spokeswoman for Equitrans Midstream Corp., the Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-based lead developer of the pipeline, said Mountain Valley “supports both timelines” extended by the Corps in a brief statement Tuesday.

Upon announcing its first-quarter results in May, Equitrans acknowledged that the project likely wouldn’t have the water permit approval it had been expecting to have by the third quarter of 2021 after West Virginia and Virginia regulators sought more review time.

Accordingly, Equitrans moved back its targeted in-service date for the pipeline from the end of 2021 to the summer of 2022, a date based on receiving all water crossing approvals and the lifting of a remaining exclusion zone around Jefferson National Forest by the end of 2021.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality plans to have a draft permit and public hearings by early fall to allow for consideration by the State Water Control Board before its federally set New Year’s Eve deadline, department spokeswoman Ann Regn said Tuesday.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection could not be reached for comment.

“By extending the review period, state and federal regulators have signaled that protecting water quality is a priority,” Peter Anderson, Virginia policy director for Appalachian Voices, said in a statement.

The now-$6.2 billion project was originally scheduled for completion by the end of 2018 at a cost of just $3.5 billion.

Pipeline developers have proposed a 125-foot-wide temporary right-of-way to construct the pipeline and a 50-feet-wide permanent right-of-way to maintain and operate the pipeline once in service. Mountain Valley anticipates the project will temporarily impact more than 21,000 linear feet of streams and 10 acres of wetlands in West Virginia during the construction phase, and permanently impact more than 1,100 linear feet of streams and 2.2 acres of wetlands.

The pipeline already has had adverse impacts on West Virginia’s waters. State environmental regulators 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 state 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.

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 U.S. Army 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 Jefferson National Forest by the end of 2021.

The 42-inch-diameter pipeline has sought and received water permit approval from West Virginia before.

The Department of Environmental Protection 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. The Mountain Valley Pipeline 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 of 1899 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 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.

In 2019, the DEP 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 of 1899 only if the DEP secretary believes the requirement should be in place.

Last year, the department stated 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 following Mountain Valley’s abandonment of its Corps-issued blanket water permit, the Corps’s current provision of an individual permit process for the department has the pipeline back under state regulator scrutiny.

“The WVDEP will consider whether the components of the activity, resulting in a discharge to waters and contemplated by the federal [Army Corps] permit and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC] license, will comply with the state’s water quality requirements and what conditions may be necessary to ensure that compliance,” acting department spokesman Terry Fletcher previously said in an email.

Traveling from Northwestern West Virginia to Southern Virginia, the 303-mile pipeline is projected to provide 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 U.S., crossing Wetzel, Harrison, Doddridge, Lewis, Braxton, Webster, Nicholas, Greenbrier, Fayette, Summers and Monroe counties in the Mountain State.

Reach Mike Tony at mtony@hdmediallc.com, 304-348-1236 or follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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