The company building a natural gas pipeline through Southwest Virginia violated environmental regulations more than 300 times, a lawsuit filed Friday by Virginia’s top lawyer alleges.
Mountain Valley Pipeline is facing “the maximum allowable civil penalties and a court order to force MVP to comply with environmental laws and regulations,” according to a statement from Attorney General Mark Herring.
Since work began earlier this year, inspections have found that crews failed to prevent muddy water from flowing off pipeline construction easements, often leaving harmful sediment in nearby streams and properties.
Covering a span of seven months and nearly 100 miles of the pipeline’s route through five counties, the lawsuit is one of the most comprehensive summaries to date of the environmental toll taken by running a 42-inch diameter pipeline across rugged slopes and through pure mountain streams.
Herring’s office filed the case on behalf of Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor and the State Water Control Board.
“The Northam administration has empowered DEQ to pursue the full course of action necessary to enforce Virginia’s environmental standards and to protect our natural resources,” Paylor said in a written statement.
“In this case, we determined referral to the Office of the Attorney General was prudent in order to seek faster resolution to these violations.”
A Mountain Valley spokeswoman said Friday that “unusually wet conditions and periods of record rainfall” since construction began have posed unexpected challenges along the pipeline’s 303-mile path from northern West Virginia to Pittsylvania County.
“The MVP project team has worked diligently to ensure appropriate soil erosion and sediment controls were implemented and restored where necessary along the route,” Natalie Cox wrote in an email.
Mountain Valley “takes its environmental stewardship responsibilities very seriously and appreciates the guidance and oversight by the VDEQ,” she wrote. “MVP will continue to comply with the relevant laws and regulations related to the safe and responsible construction of this important infrastructure project in order to meet public demand for natural gas.”
The lawsuit, filed in Henrico County Circuit Court, does not state an exact monetary amount being sought by the state.
In July, DEQ issued a notice of violation to Mountain Valley, informing the company that its measures to control erosion and sediment had failed at multiple locations in the counties of Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin.
The matter was later referred to the attorney general’s office, which spent several months preparing a 27-page lawsuit that makes more sweeping allegations.
It’s rare for such a case to end up in court, said David Sligh, a former environmental engineer for DEQ who is now fighting the pipeline as conservation director of Wild Virginia. Most notices of violations are handled administratively, with the most severe action a fine that is generally less than what a judge might impose, he said.
“I think it’s the right thing to do, and I applaud them for doing it,” Sligh said. “I guess my only question is, why didn’t it merit stronger action earlier?”
A citizen watchdog group, Mountain Valley Watch, has been submitting reports of possible violations to DEQ since early spring. And even as the state sanctions piled up, construction continued at a fast clip — except for court-ordered suspensions in the Jefferson National Forest and for spots where the pipeline will cross streams and wetlands.
Pipeline opponents have called on DEQ to issue a stop-work order, which the agency is allowed by state law to do if there is a “substantial adverse impact” to water quality or if such an impact is eminent.
DEQ has taken no such action, and did not ask for a court-ordered suspension in Friday’s lawsuit.
Even so, the financial cost to Mountain Valley could be substantial. Penalties in the case could be as high as $32,500 per day for each violation, according to the lawsuit. The attorney general’s office has not calculated the maximum fine. “That will be determined in court,” spokeswoman Charlotte Gomer said.
Mountain Valley has already agreed to pay the state $27.5 million to compensate for the environmental damage that was expected even before the first tree was felled, money that will be spent on conservation projects outside of the pipeline’s reach.
When news of the mitigation agreement became public in February, some critics said the contract would tie the hands of state officials from recovering any additional damages from pipeline construction.
But the agreement has no impact on the lawsuit, Gomer said.
The legal action is based on dozens of inspections conducted by DEQ officials and employees of MBP, a private company hired by the state to assist in monitoring construction of what is the largest natural gas pipeline ever proposed for Southwest Virginia.
The first major sign of trouble came on May 21, when state inspectors were called to Franklin County after heavy rains triggered a landslide on a steep construction zone, covering nearby Cahas Mountain Road with nearly a foot of mud.
About 100 yards south of the pipeline right of way, inspectors found a stream with a layer of sediment 1 to 11 inches deep, extending for more than 1,000 feet. In the coming months, similar discoveries were made along other streams in the Roanoke and New River valleys.
Inspections also documented how Mountain Valley crews failed to maintain construction access roads, did not implement stabilization measures such as dams and water bars after problems were identified, and neglected to keep proper records of their compliance with regulations and permits, according to the lawsuit.
For the most part, the reported violations were limited to the construction that DEQ has agreed to monitor — so-called “upland areas” that do not include water body crossings, which fall under the scrutiny of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In October, a permit from the Army Crops covering about 500 stream and wetland crossings in Virginia was suspended after a successful legal challenge filed by the Sierra Club and other conservation groups, who raised concerns about water pollution.
Mountain Valley has said it hopes to obtain a new permit in time to complete construction on schedule by late next year.
Although the lawsuit filed Friday was perhaps the most far-reaching regulatory action taken against the pipeline, it was not the first.
In West Virginia, environmental regulators have issued more than 15 notices to Mountain Valley that it had violated storm water control requirements. But the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has taken no further enforcement action, according to online records.
In nearly all of the cases, Mountain Valley responded to the violation notices by informing state officials that the problems they identified had been corrected.
Through its lawsuit, Virginia’s DEQ is asking a judge to order Mountain Valley to comply with the State Water Control Law and nine other regulations, permits and plans that it says have been violated from May to November.
The legal action is “the show of leadership we’ve been waiting for from this administration,” said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.
“While fining this company for being a bad actor in Virginia is a welcome and necessary step forward, it’s important not to forget that Virginians who live along this route are still the ones paying the real price — in land taken from them repaid with mud-filled streams and rivers, and in a forever marred mountainside and rural landscape.”