For those fighting the Mountain Valley Pipeline, scattered stretches of water, wetlands and national forest may soon be all that’s left to defend.
Construction crews working through the summer have completed large sections of the 303-mile natural gas pipeline that starts in northern West Virginia, passes through the New River and Roanoke valleys, and connects with another pipeline near the North Carolina line.
The latest question — whether Mountain Valley should be granted permission to cross water bodies — is now reaching a key stage.
On Saturday, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality began taking public comments on a draft permit that would allow Mountain Valley to dig trenches for the buried pipe through streams and wetlands, impacting surface water in 428 locations. That’s an area of slightly more than 9 acres and 17,000 linear feet of streams and rivers along the pipeline’s 107-mile path through Southwest Virginia.
Two public hearings, in Rocky Mount and Radford, will be held in late September. The deadline for written comments is Oct. 27, and the State Water Control Board is expected to make a final decision in December on whether to grant a water quality certification to MVP.
The process is off to a rocky start, with pipeline opponents saying that a recommendation by DEQ’s staff to approve the permit foreshadows what will happen.
“This proposal is an abdication of DEQ’s duty to protect Virginians and our precious resources,” read a statement from Appalachian Voices, Sierra Club, the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights coalition and Wild Virginia, four organizations that have long opposed the project.
“We now call on the citizen-led State Water Control Board to reject DEQ’s recommendation and deny the certification,” the groups said.
Action by the board is needed before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decides whether to give Mountain Valley what’s called a Nationwide Permit 12.
The company’s initial attempt to use a blanket form of that permit was waylaid by legal challenges from environmental groups. Mountain Valley then applied for an individual Nationwide Permit 12, which entails a more detailed analysis of each water body crossing.
Mountain Valley has failed to present, and DEQ did not consider, the full impact on streams and wetlands, opponents say.
“We are confident that a full description of the likely impacts from the remaining work MVP proposes is being withheld for one simple reason — it is abundantly clear that MVP cannot plow through these water bodies without causing unacceptable damages and violating state and federal laws,” said David Sligh, conservation director of Wild Virginia.
A Mountain Valley spokeswoman said Friday that the company is reviewing the draft permit.
The joint venture of five energy companies building the pipeline “looks forward to working cooperatively with the agency through the remaining stages of the process,” Natalie Cox wrote in an email. “As always, MVP intends to uphold its environmental commitments to the highest standards as set forth by the agency.”
The draft permit is 51 pages long and includes a number of conditions, including time-of-year restrictions on work to protect endangered species such as the Roanoke logperch and the candy darter. Mountain Valley must purchase mitigation credits to compensate for impacts to streams and wetlands.
Approval by Virginia regulators is not the only hurdle MVP must clear before it can start work in streams and wetlands.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is considering a similar water quality certification for construction in that state. And concerns about the stream crossings have been raised by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.
In a letter to the Army Corps, the EPA wrote that the project may not comply with its guidelines, which require all impacts on streams to be minimized. “At this time, EPA recommends that the permit not be issued,” the letter states, although it goes on to say that modifications could alleviate the possible problems.
A third category of stream crossings would be governed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the lead agency overseeing construction of the $6.2 billion project. Earlier this year, Mountain Valley filed an application with FERC to bore under about 120 streams in the two Virginias.
In an environmental assessment released earlier this month, FERC found that the boring method would cause fewer impacts than open-cut crossings, which the two states are considering. That process entails temporarily damming a stream, digging a trench along the exposed bottom, burying the 42-inch diameter pipe and then restoring the water flow over the pipeline.
Mountain Valley evaluated each stream crossing to determine if boring was possible, according to DEQ. In those where the length of the crossing, depth of the stream, surrounding slopes and other factors eliminated the option of boring, the open-cut method will be used.
When construction began in 2018, Mountain Valley’s plans called for crossing nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands. About half of those were completed before the company ran into legal problems with its initial Nationwide Permit 12 two years ago.
In Virginia, Mountain Valley has identified 236 remaining stream crossings, 92 of which would entail using the boring method, according to DEQ.
Boring is planned for the Roanoke River along the Montgomery-Roanoke county line. The north fork of the river in Montgomery County has already been crossed via the open-cut method.
In asking the state water board to stop Mountain Valley from completing the crossings, Sligh cited the company’s “deplorable record of violating environmental rules since it began work.”
Muddy water has often flowed unchecked from construction areas when it rains, and DEQ found more than 300 violations of erosion and sediment control regulations.
Mountain Valley counters that record levels of rainfall were responsible for many of the infractions, and that it has made improvements since 2018 in curbing storm water runoff.
While work has continued along parts of the pipeline’s route that steer clear of water bodies, a 3.5-mile section that passes through the Jefferson National Forest is still off limits.
In 2018, concerns about erosion prompted a federal court to remand a permit from the U.S. Forest Service that would have allowed the pipeline to burrow through sections of public woodlands in Giles and Montgomery counties.
The Forest Service renewed its approval in January but required Mountain Valley to wait until it has all of its permits in hand before resuming work in the national forest.
Final action on the stream crossing permits by state and federal agencies is not expected until early next year.
Critics have called on FERC to follow the Forest Service’s example by barring any work until all of the permits are approved. The commission has split 2-2 on some matters involving the pipeline. A fifth member, who opponents believe could swing the vote their way, has not yet been nominated by President Joe Biden.
In October 2019, after three sets of permits were struck down by legal challenges, FERC issued a stop-work order. It was lifted a year later, as the pipeline began to get renewed approvals.
About a half-dozen legal challenges — which include an appeal of the Forest Service’s latest decision and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s finding that construction would not jeopardize endangered species in the pipeline’s path — remain pending.
Oral arguments in those cases have yet to be scheduled. By the time that happens, Mountain Valley may have completed all work except for its route under streams and through the national forest.