Mountain Valley Pipeline’s path across hundreds of streams and wetlands, one of the last unfinished parts of a project long delayed by controversy, could grow even longer and more complicated.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality recently informed federal officials that it could take nearly a year to issue a water quality certification needed as part of a renewed application for water body crossings.
“Based on the complexity of this project and past public controversy, we cannot reasonably issue the VWP [Virginia Water Protection] permit before December 2021 and believe it is quite likely that we could not issue this permit until early 2022,” Melanie Davenport, DEQ’s director of water permitting, wrote Thursday in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Davenport asked the Army Corps to extend a deadline that normally falls 120 days after an application is submitted, in this case July 2.
If the Army Corps were to approve the request, it would make it all but impossible for Mountain Valley to complete construction of the $6 billion project by year’s end, as it has been telling investors and the public since last November. Original plans called for work to be done by 2018, but lawsuits by environmental groups have led to multiple delays.
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Mountain Valley is disappointed with DEQ’s request and “continues to target a late 2021 in-service date,” spokeswoman Natalie Cox said Monday.
“MVP believes that an efficient permitting process, including all required public participation, can be completed in a timely manner,” Cox wrote in an email that refers to a long regulatory record that goes back to 2015.
But David Sligh, conservation director of Wild Virginia, said he believes there is “slim to no chance” of the pipeline being completed this year.
“We’re talking hundreds of water crossings,” he said, and a more complicated application process that Mountain Valley began this year after repeatedly running into legal trouble with its preferred method, a blanket stream-crossing permit issued by the Army Corps.
Breeana Harris, a spokeswoman for the agency’s Norfolk district, said it will make a decision on DEQ’s request “as soon as we can.”
Before giving an interstate construction project permission to cross streams and wetlands, the Army Corps asks each state for input. If the states do not act within a “reasonable period of time,” usually 120 days, their authority is waived.
In a March 18 email, the Army Corps told DEQ to request more time if it is needed. In her March 25 reply, Davenport asked that the deadline be extended to March 3, 2022.
“We strongly support DEQ’s extension request,” Sligh said. “The review of a project of this size and scope, which would have such serious impacts on many of our most sensitive and valuable waters and on thousands of Virginians, must not be rushed.”
Mountain Valley says it has completed about half of the nearly 1,000 crossings of streams and wetlands along the pipeline’s 303-mile route from northern West Virginia, through six counties in Southwest Virginia, to connect with an existing pipeline in Pittsylvania County.
The complicated process began in early 2018, when the Army Corps issued a Nationwide Permit 12, which critics describe as a one-size-fits-all approval that does not analyze each stream crossing.
Those permits were thrown out in 2018 by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Army Corps then reissued the permits, only to be sued a second time by environmental groups. Late last year, the 4th Circuit stayed the permits, indicating that they would likely be struck down a second time.
Mountain Valley then decided to seek individual permits from the Army Corps, which require a stream-by-stream analysis that is lacking with the Nationwide Permit 12.
As part of the new application, Virginia’s State Water Control Board, which issued a water quality certification for Mountain Valley in 2017 in connection with its first application, must now redo that process.
That will involve a detailed review of the application, to be followed by a 30-day public comment period before the board can meet, Davenport said in her letter to Vincent Pero of the Army Corps’ Norfolk district.
Since work began in 2018, Mountain Valley has encountered problems with muddy runoff from its linear construction zone. The company has been cited hundreds of times by regulators in the two Virginias for violating erosion and sediment control regulations.
In addition to stream crossings, the project faces some of its steepest terrain in areas where it has yet to bury the 42-inch diameter pipe, including on Bent Mountain and in parts of the New River Valley.
“DEQ must require the company to submit much more data and analyses and it must all be weighed with MVP’s abysmal record of violations and damages in mind,” Sligh said.
“This project cannot dig and blast through all of these water bodies without damaging them and a thorough and appropriate review will demonstrate that fact.”