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State panel approves stream-crossing permit for Mountain Valley Pipeline

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A Mountain Valley Pipeline construction worker looks over the route in October from Honeysuckle Road near the top of Poor Mountain in Roanoke County. 

RICHMOND — The Mountain Valley Pipeline made it across troubled waters Tuesday.

In a 3-2 vote, the State Water Control Board granted a permit for the natural gas pipeline to cross about 150 streams and wetlands in Southwest Virginia, surmounting one of the beleaguered project’s most protracted struggles.

Although a similar permit from West Virginia and federal approval is still required, Mountain Valley expressed confidence that it will complete construction “in a way that protects natural resources and meets public demand for reliable, affordable and lower-carbon energy.”

About 94% of the pipeline is finished, spokeswoman Natalie Cox wrote in an email Tuesday, and “the remaining waterbody crossings can be completed successfully and without adverse impacts to sensitive resources.”

However, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has already cited the joint venture of five energy companies building the pipeline with nearly 400 violations of erosion and sediment control regulations.

Opponents argue that the true number is much higher — and will only increase if stream crossings are allowed to resume after earlier permits were struck down by the courts.

In recommending approval for a company that it has cited repeatedly since work began in 2018, DEQ said most of Mountain Valley’s failures to adequately control muddy runoff from construction sites did not ultimately lead to sediment reaching water bodies.

Many pipeline opponents have wrongly characterized the infractions as violations of water quality standards, DEQ’s director of water permitting told the board.

That is “a very specific thing” that was not cited in a lawsuit filed against Mountain Valley and later settled for $2.15 million, Melanie Davenport said. “I just wanted to make that clear, because I think that has been a point of confusion.”

Pipeline opponents called the water board’s vote shameful but not surprising.

“As we reflect on the losses of neighbor landowners and communities suffering MVP’s destructive effects on land, forests and waters, in the midst of an intensifying climate crisis, Virginia’s Water Board has marked for itself an infamous place in history,” Roberta Bondurant, co-chair of the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights coalition said in a statement.

Board members Paula Jasinski and Ryan Seiger voted against the permit. Support came from Lou Ann Jessee-Wallace, Tim Hayes and Jack Lanier. Two members of the citizens panel, which is appointed by the governor, were absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

In 2017, the water board found a “reasonable assurance” that construction of the 303-mile pipeline through the two Virginias would not harm state waters.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers then granted what’s called a Nationwide Permit 12, a blanket approval that critics complained took a one-size-fits-all approach to water body crossings.

Mountain Valley completed more than half of nearly 1,000 stream and wetland crossings in the two Virginias before the Nationwide Permit 12 was invalidated by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

After a second setback with the same court, Mountain Valley decided to seek an individual permit from the Army Corps, which could come only after a second approval from the states.

“We conducted a crossing-by-crossing review. We looked at all of them,” Dave Davis, DEQ’s director of wetlands and stream protection, told the board.

Mountain Valley has 236 remaining stream crossings in Virginia, Cox said. About 90 involve boring under the water bodies, a process that will be decided by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the lead agency overseeing construction of the pipeline.

The crossings approved by the water board, referred to as the open-cut method, entail temporarily damming a stream or river and digging a trench for the buried pipeline along the bottom. In some cases, pumps and flumes are used to divert the current long enough to install the 42-inch diameter pipe.

Starting in northern West Virginia, the pipeline will transport 2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas through the New River and Roanoke Valleys. It will connect with an existing pipeline in Pittsylvania County, moving gas for distribution along the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions.

A small amount of the fuel will be used by Roanoke Gas Co, which has a subsidiary company that is a partner in construction of the infrastructure project.

After listening to more than two hours of DEQ presentations, the board did not discuss the permit before taking its vote.

But in questions to staff members, Jasinski expressed concerns about the long-term impacts on groundwater. One question involves the coating used to protect the pipe from corrosion, and whether harmful chemicals might make their way into wells or public water supplies.

A study by FERC found no evidence to support those fears, Davenport said.

Seiger asked what might happen if the pipeline route, which has changed slightly over the past four years, is again altered after a permit was granted.

“This is a heartbreaking decision,” said David Sligh, conservation director for Wild Virginia, one of the groups filing legal challenges that have delayed the pipeline’s completion by three years.

“Yet another public agency that’s supposed to protect us and our natural treasures has failed to live up to the standards we have a right to expect,” Sligh said in a written statement.

“No single project in Virginia in decades has presented a threat to our precious resources even close to the scope and scale of those that MVP poses.”

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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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