After issuing a water quality certification that allowed construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline to move forward one year ago, a state board on Thursday seemed to be having second thoughts.
On a vote of 4-3, the State Water Control Board decided to hold a hearing to consider revoking the certification, which was based on its earlier finding of a “reasonable assurance” that streams and rivers would not be contaminated.
Since then, Mountain Valley has been cited more than 300 times for violating regulations meant to limit erosion. Muddy runoff from work sites has repeatedly washed harmful sediment into nearby streams, inspections by the Department of Environmental Quality have found.
No date was scheduled for the hearing. Details on the process will be worked out over the next few weeks, DEQ said in a news release following the board’s meeting in Richmond.
Although it’s unclear what might happen next, the vote marked the latest setback for Mountain Valley — even as the company announced this week that construction is nearly 70 percent completed on the 303-mile natural gas pipeline through Virginia and West Virginia.
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Court challenges have already led to the suspension of permits for the pipeline to cross through the Jefferson National Forest and under about 1,000 streams and wetlands, and the latest development Thursday came one week after DEQ filed a lawsuit against Mountain Valley.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Tammy Belinsky, a Floyd County attorney who has been active in fighting the project, said after attending the meeting.
“The citizens who were at the meeting today are grateful that their concerns have been heard by four board members, who took action to restore some faith in their ability to act in the public’s interest.”
In August, when violations against Mountain Valley were starting to reach a critical mass, the water board voted 4-3 against the idea of reconsidering its certification.
The terms of two members — one who voted for the pipeline and the other against it — have since expired, and their replacements accounted for the flip in the panel’s position.
New member James Loften made a motion to hold the hearing, which was supported by Paula Hill Jasinski, who was also attending her first formal board meeting. They were joined by members Robert Wayland and Nissa Dean, who had earlier taken the same position.
In a statement late Thursday, Mountain Valley said it “appreciates and respects” the permitting process for the pipeline, but did not comment in detail on what the board’s vote portends.
“We will continue to work with the VA DEQ and the SWCB to address any additional concerns,” spokeswoman Natalie Cox wrote in an email.
Earlier in the week, the company issued a news release that said it expected to have about 70 percent of the $4.6 billion project done by the end of this year, with final completion scheduled for late 2019.
“Construction of MVP began in February 2018 and, despite various setbacks and unprecedented weather conditions, we have made substantial progress this year,” said Diana Charletta, chief operating officer of Equitrans Midstream Corp., the parent company of one of the five partners in the joint venture.
Any hearing held by the water board is not likely to happen until early next year. In the meantime, some pipeline opponents called for immediate action.
“We now call on the DEQ to do what’s necessary — and has been necessary for months — and issue a stop-work order for the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” said Lara Mack, Virginia field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, one of more than 50 organizations that have taken a stand against the pipeline.
Although work is continuing on parts of the project, the pace is expected to slow down during the winter as part of the normal construction process.