The Mountain Valley Pipeline has sunk deeper into trouble with muddy water flowing unchecked from construction sites.
A proposed consent order from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection would require the company to pay a $303,706 fine for repeated violations of erosion and sediment control regulations.
West Virginia had previously fined Mountain Valley $266,000 for similar violations along the first 198 miles of the natural gas pipeline. In Southwest Virginia, where the pipeline continues for another 105 miles, regulators have imposed more than $2 million in penalties on three separate occasions.
But pipeline opponents say the fines are too small to deter future environmental damage from the $6 billion project.
“Three hundred thousand dollars is a tiny percentage of the project’s overall cost, and does not even begin to adequately cover the damage that’s been done to our streams,” said Autumn Crowe, a staff scientist for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.
The most recent enforcement action was signed Jan. 11 by Robert Cooper, who is heading construction of Mountain Valley. The West Virginia DEP will accept written comments through March 13 before taking final action, according to spokesman Terry Fletcher.
Included in the order are 29 notices of violation from February 2019 to September 2020.
Most of the problems were related to maintenance of erosion and sedimentation controls, “all of which have been remediated with no additional corrective actions required,” Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox wrote in an email Thursday.
“In cooperation with the WVDEP, we have enhanced the level of environmental controls that were originally approved, and the measures in place today are substantially better than those initially installed,” the email stated.
Since work began in February 2018, construction crews have struggled to prevent storm water from flowing off steep slopes that have been cleared of trees and graded so the 42-inch diameter pipe can be buried in trenches.
According to the consent order, sediment-laden water was allowed to escape the 125-wide construction zones due to failures of silt fences, water bars and other erosion control devices.
In some cases, water bars — earthen barriers built on steep slopes to divert stormwater — were improperly installed, allowing runoff to accumulate downhill in quantities that overwhelmed retention ponds.
Mountain Valley also failed to adequately plant grass on denuded strips of land, which contributed to problems with runoff, the order stated. Inspectors often observed sediment in nearby streams, which can endanger fish and other aquatic life and cause problems with water quality farther downstream.
There have also been slips, or a gradual movement of earth downhill that is akin to a slow-motion avalanche.
Last April in Lewis County, West Virginia, slips caused a segment of the pipe that had already been buried to shift in at least three locations, according to an inspection report filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Had pressurized natural gas been flowing through the pipeline, any underground movement could have caused a rupture and explosion, pipeline opponents said.
Cox said at the time that Mountain Valley would conduct an investigation as a precautionary measure, but added that the pipeline was designed to withstand minor ground shifting as it settles in the final stages of construction.
Asked about the matter Thursday, Cox said the pipe was excavated, inspected and replaced, and the hillside was stabilized using a mechanically engineered geotechnical reinforcement method.
“As an additional safety precaution, MVP crews surveyed and inspected pipe in other locations along the route to confirm that this was an isolated incident, which was the case,” her email stated.
As for the erosion problems cited in the consent order, Cox noted that of the 29 notices of violation, only four were written in 2020 despite significant rainfall that year — evidence, she said, that Mountain Valley is working to make improvements.
Although there were 29 notices issued, some of them contained multiple violations. A total number was not available Thursday.
Mountain Valley says it is on target to finish the pipeline by the end of the year, despite multiple legal challenges to its permits that have caused delays and cost overruns. The joint venture of five energy companies plans to ship 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day to markets in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions of the country.
Environmental groups, however, say the project will scar the scenic landscape of Southwest Virginia, clog its streams with sediment and jeopardize endangered species of fish and bats.
Last week, Appalachian Voices and six other organizations asked a federal appeals court to stay two recent orders from FERC — one lifting a stop-work order last October and the other giving Mountain Valley two more years to complete the project.
“Seemingly endless environmental violations have further slowed construction while fouling waters and land along the pipeline’s route,” the coalition said in a filing with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
The court is currently considering two legal challenges to FERC’s actions, and a stay would put pipeline work on hold until a decision is reached. Five more lawsuits are pending against other federal agencies that reissued permits after the original ones were struck down.