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Economic slowdown not affecting many outdoor construction projects

Economic slowdown not affecting many outdoor construction projects

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While business closures and work-from-home orders have altered the employment scene for many Southwest Virginians, most outdoor construction projects are moving forward.

Workers on highway improvements, home and commercial construction and other projects generally have more room for the social distancing that is being called for in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We are not hearing of any significant shutdowns,” said Gordon Dixon, CEO of Associated General Contractors of Virginia, the state’s largest construction trade organization.

But conditions could change “day by day, if not hour by hour,” he said. One concern is that with local and state governments restricting the work of their employees, inspectors will not be available to review work and issue permission for construction to continue.

“That could grind projects to a halt,” Dixon said. Delivery of supplies could also be slowed if the coronavirus pandemic’s grip grows stronger in the coming days.

In Roanoke, field workers are continuing to inspect construction sites, according to the Planning, Building and Development Department’s website. But all rezoning and other land-use cases before the planning commission have been postponed, which could delay future projects.

Construction of an expansion of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at the Virginia Tech-Carilion complex in Roanoke has not experienced any disruptions or delays, according to Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski.

About 150 construction workers are on the job, which is scheduled to be completed early this summer.

At Lionberger Construction in Roanoke County, four projects — involving hotel renovations and work at a senior living facility — have been suspended at the request of clients who wanted to limit exposure to their patrons, according to president Sam Lionberger.

But there has been no company-wide shutdown, and construction on 12 other projects is going forward. “We’ve very lucky that we have some job sites that we are able to continue work on,” Lionberger said.

Lionberger and Dixon said some local governments may consider remote inspections to be conducted by video, or hiring third-party firms to do the work.

Road maintenance and major highway projects in the region — including the replacement of bridges on Interstate 81, improvements to East Main Street in Salem and work on a stretch of U.S. 220 from Eagle Rock to Iron Gate — have not been affected, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

In fact, reduced traffic along some roadways caused by the slowdown in daily life could expedite work that had previously been limited to nighttime hours.

“Any work schedule adjustments related to this are being handled by a project-by-project basis,” VDOT spokesman Jason Bond said in an email.

Work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which has been largely stalled in recent months by the suspension of permits for environmental reasons, is not expected to be further slowed, according to company spokeswoman Natalie Cox.

In October, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered that all construction cease, except for stabilization and erosion control work, while it and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed the project’s impact on threatened or endangered species of fish and bats. That process began after environmental groups filed a legal challenge to the permits last summer.

“The team is currently focused on environmental activities and both MVP personnel and contractors are following recommended public health guidelines,” Cox wrote in an email.

Erosion control is monitored by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and third-party inspectors. On March 18, DEQ announced that its routine field activities, including inspections and monitoring, would be suspended for two weeks because of the coronavirus.

Significant pipeline concerns will still be investigated, DEQ said, and the agency will rely on contractors already on site for daily monitoring.

If Mountain Valley regains all three sets of suspended permits and resumes full construction, some observers are concerned that an influx of workers from other states could bring the virus with them.

Tina Smusz, a retired physician from Montgomery County, warned in a March 19 email to state epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake of “a potential new reservoir of the virus that could spread the disease into Southwest Virginia’s rural population, many of whom live far from basic medical services and hospitals.”

“This influx will come from states that already have large numbers of COVID-19,” Smusz wrote in asking the Virginia Department of Health to work with other state and federal agencies to delay the resumption of pipeline work.

But in a letter to FERC on Wednesday, an attorney for Mountain Valley wrote that the governors of Virginia and West Virginia have concluded that natural gas pipelines are “essential” businesses, and that work on the 303-mile transmission line through the two states will continue.

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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