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Advisory council asks Northam to stop pipeline work, but governor passes

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Asked by his own advisory council to suspend work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, Gov. Ralph Northam made no such promise in a letter sent to the panel this week.

The Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice recommended in August that Virginia’s water quality certification for construction of the natural gas pipeline be “rescinded immediately.”

The same request was made for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which like Mountain Valley has drawn fierce opposition from those who say the projects will mar rural landscapes, pollute streams and invade private property.

“Governor Northam and I share your commitment” to protecting public health and the environment, Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler wrote in a letter to the 14-member panel, which is appointed by the governor but has no direct authority over the permitting process.

Strickler’s letter indicated that the hands of state officials are tied by the actions of a federal agency with primary oversight of the pipelines.

“We share your frustration over the fact that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission made decisions regarding siting, the use of eminent domain, and cost-benefit analysis for these pipeline projects without the kind of thoughtful review we would have required,” he wrote.

“Those decisions preclude us from taking many of the actions that landowners, conservationists, and environmental justice advocates have asked us to take.”

The one-page letter did not specifically address the council’s recommendation that construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline be delayed until its impacts are more thoroughly reviewed.

Mike Ellerbrock, a Virginia Tech professor of agriculture and applied economics who serves on the council, said he was disappointed but could not speak for the entire body.

“We just have to go to plan B and hope the necessary precautions are put in place,” he said. “If these pipelines are going to be built, they need to be built right.”

Northam and Strickler assured the council that state regulators will hold the pipelines to “the highest environmental standards possible.”

In July, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality issued a notice of violation against Mountain Valley, informing the company that measures to control erosion and sediment had failed on multiple occasions in the six Southwest Virginia counties through which the pipeline will pass.

The notice, which is the first step in an enforcement process, has since been referred to the state attorney general’s office, according to DEQ spokeswoman Ann Regn.

“We definitely share DEQ’s commitment to health, safety, and the environment, so when DEQ sends something over to our office we will work with them to figure out the best and most appropriate next steps,” Charlotte Gomer, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, wrote in an email.

She declined to elaborate on what those steps might be.

Mountain Valley officials have said they are working with regulators in Virginia and West Virginia to ensure compliance along the pipeline’s 303-mile route.

Proponents tout the pipeline’s creation of jobs, economic growth and a more reliable source of natural gas. Despite two court-ordered delays prompted by environmental concerns, Mountain Valley officials say the project is now on schedule to start delivering natural gas to Mid-Atlantic and Southeast markets by late next year.

Opponents question the need for the project, and accuse state officials of favoring corporate interests over natural resources.

“Governor Northam and his Environmental Chief have now laid waste to any notion this administration and its agencies are capable of doing anything but advancing the business of the fracked gas industry,” the Protect Our Water Heritage Rights Coalition said in a statement Wednesday after the letter was released.

“Northam and team have calculated citizens in the pipelines’ path as dispensable in the elections mix, as collateral damage in the high risk-high return business of fracked gas global commodities trading.”

Critics also questioned why the state is not heeding the council’s recommendation to rescind a water quality certification issued to Mountain Valley last December by the State Water Control Board.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended a permit that Mountain Valley needed to dig trenches to run a 42-inch diameter pipe through the bottoms of more than 500 streams and wetlands in Virginia. The suspension came after a similar approval in West Virginia was vacated by a federal appeals court.

The Army Corps permit was a key component of the water board’s conclusion that state waters would be protected, according to Tammy Belinsky, a Floyd County attorney involved in legal challenges against the pipeline.

With that component now missing, Belinsky said, regulators have built a “house of cards” for Mountain Valley that is now collapsing.

“Why is the state still trying to hold the house up?” she asked.

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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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