RICHMOND — Facing a crowd that went from frustrated to furious, the State Water Control Board voted 4-3 Tuesday against reconsidering a stream-crossing permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
A second proposal, with more general language aimed at tougher enforcement of environmental regulations, then passed unanimously — but failed to appease the nearly 200 pipeline opponents who packed a hearing room.
Throughout the four-hour meeting, board members and officials with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality were repeatedly interrupted and heckled by those who say the state is failing to protect streams and wetlands from pollution caused by pipeline construction.
“Not true,” one person shouted during a presentation on measures to control erosion and sedimentation. “More lies,” another one later interjected.
At one point, board member Timothy Hayes moved to adjourn the meeting because of the disruptions, then withdrew his motion after what proved to be a temporary calm.
In April, the board invited public comments on the sufficiency of permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in conjunction with state officials, that allowed Mountain Valley to dig trenches to run its natural gas pipeline across the bottoms of more than 500 streams and wetlands in Southwest Virginia.
A permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a similar project that will cut through Central Virginia, was also up for discussion.
Work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline is moving at a faster pace, and complaints about the muddy runoff it has generated clearly troubled some board members.
“We’ve all seen them,” Roberta Kellam said of the photographs — some of them held up by members of the audience — that show streams clouded by sediment. “There are so many more than we’ve seen today.”
Kellam was joined by Nissa Dean in supporting Robert Wayland’s motion to start a process of modifying or revoking a so-called Nationwide Permit 12 issued by the Army Corps.
But with the other four members opposed, the board then turned to an earlier motion from Hayes that called for three actions: sharing the public comments with the Corps, enforcing regulations more aggressively and responding faster to citizen complaints.
“It sounds like a well-intended motion, but I’m afraid it won’t have any teeth,” said Peter Anderson of Appalachian Voices, one of 54 organizations that recently wrote Gov. Ralph Northam in opposition of the pipelines.
With construction slowed by a temporary stop-work order, which in turn led Mountain Valley to push back its expected completion date to late 2019, pipeline opponents were hoping for a more detailed review of stream crossings that might have further delayed work on the 303-mile buried pipeline.
“It’s absurd to think that a one-size-fits-all nationwide permit could adequately protect the unique waterways and communities of Virginia,” said Kate Addleson, head of the Sierra Club’s state chapter.
“The bare minimum action taken by the board today pales in comparison to what a truly thorough review could accomplish.”
A spokeswoman for Mountain Valley applauded the board’s action to uphold both the Army Corps’ permit and a separate water quality certification by the state.
“The measures adopted by these approvals, working in conjunction with oversight from other federal, state and local authorities, will ensure the construction activities for the MVP project comply with Virginia’s standards for water quality protection,” Natalie Cox wrote in an email.
Since pipeline work began in the spring, regulators in Virginia and West Virginia have put the company on notice six times that its erosion and sediment controls are lacking.
But just because a stream turns the color of chocolate milk after a heavy rainfall does not mean there are grounds for an enforcement action. State officials say the real test is whether sediment impairs a waterway.
“Turbidity is a relative thing,” Hayes said. “Simply saying there’s some turbidity in a stream after it rains” is not enough.
However, Hayes did say he was concerned about another issue — complaints from the Bent Mountain community in Roanoke County that trenches dug for the 42-inch pipe were continuously filling up with water. Residents fear that sediment-laden water could reach wells in an area with an unusually high water table.
“The board needs to know from staff as soon as possible what’s the deal up there,” he said.
DEQ officials have said that there is no evidence of drinking water contamination, and that Mountain Valley has approval to pump the standing water from the trenches and through filtration devices.
Critics contend that the agency, unwilling to stand in the way of Mountain Valley’s $3.7 billion venture, is feeding misinformation to both the board and the public.
“It’s a travesty for the state to see DEQ not stand up and not have enough backbone to do what’s right, and that’s to help the people,” James Hargett, who has been monitoring issues in Franklin County, said during a public comment period Tuesday that was dominated by pipeline opponents.
When the meeting ended, some members of the crowd approached the dais — prompting police officers who had been standing guard to form a line that prevented them from getting any closer to the board members and DEQ Director David Paylor.