RADFORD — As they have many times before, opponents of building a natural gas pipeline through Southwest Virginia decried its heavy environmental footprint.
And once again, supporters said the Mountain Valley Pipeline is vital to economic growth.
Their comments were made Monday and Tuesday night during public hearings held by the Department of Environmental Quality and the State Water Control Board, which are considering a stream-crossing permit for the deeply divisive project.
Although much of the 303-mile pipeline is nearing completion, Mountain Valley has encountered repeated regulatory and legal challenges over how the buried pipe will cross nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands in its path.
Before the project can be finished, the water board must issue a water quality certification, which would then be followed by a final approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
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The board is expected to make a decision in December.
Of the 53 people who spoke Monday night in Rocky Mount, 35 were in favor of finishing the long-delayed project. The first 20 speakers at Tuesday’s hearing at Radford University, which continued past press time, were evenly split on the issue.
Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Rocky Mount, said a current lack of natural gas has long been a stumbling block in attracting new industries to Franklin County. “I can’t overstate the importance of the pipeline’s completion for the county’s economic success,” he said.
By tapping the pipeline as it runs though the Summit View Business Park, Roanoke Gas Co. would be able to meet demand in Franklin County, it says.
Paul Schneider, director of energy planning and procurement for Roanoke Gas, said the company has added about 2,500 customers since 2015 and expects 600 more over the next year.
Two existing pipelines that currently supply natural gas have no more capacity, the company says. “Roanoke Gas needed MVP in 2015 and we need it even more today,” Schneider said.
Opponents point to the pipeline’s troubled environmental record since work began in 2018. State regulators have cited Mountain Valley with more than 300 violations of erosion and sediment control regulations. When it rains heavily, muddy water often flows off construction sites and into streams.
“Commerce is not your job,” Joshua Vana of ARTivism, a group that coordinates resistance between artists and environmental justice activists, told the water board. “Your job is to represent citizens and protect water quality.”
Many say it is not too late to stop the pipeline.
“This is not a done deal,” Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, said Tuesday in urging the board not to allow the bureaucratic momentum Mountain Valley has gained with other permits to influence its decision.
Quoting documents filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Jessica Sims of Appalachian Voices said that final restoration has taken place on just 52% of the pipeline, which will run from northern West Virginia through the New River and Roanoke valleys to connect with an existing pipeline near the North Carolina line.
Mountain Valley officials say the project is more than 90% done.
Final restoration — which includes returning the land to its original form and planting vegetation above the buried pipe — should not be conflated with other, more time-consuming activities, such as building three compressor stations and interconnects with other pipelines, Mountain Valley says. That work has been completed, they say, and 272 miles of pipe is in the ground.
Putting a 42-inch diameter pipe through water bodies is one of the most environmentally dangerous parts of the job, opponents say.
But Joyce Waugh, president and CEO of the Roanoke Regional Chamber, said at Monday’s public hearing that a similar crossing of the Roanoke River for a sewer line was done with no long-term problems reported.
Using what’s called an open-cut trench method, the Western Virginia Water Authority in 2009 replaced a 42-inch main that was part of a low-water dam between the Vic Thomas and Wasena parks in Roanoke.
A cofferdam was temporarily installed to divert half of the river channel’s flow, at which point a 24-inch and 36-inch pipe were buried along the bottom of the drained area. The process was then repeated on the other half of the river.
Water authority spokeswoman Sarah Baumgardner said there were no citizen complaints of sediment in the river, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that any short-term impacts would be outweighed by the long-term benefit to the habitat of the Roanoke logperch.
In late 2017, a similar process for Mountain Valley’s crossings received a Nationwide Permit 12, an approval from the Army Corps that critics derided as taking a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach. At the time, they said Mountain Valley should have applied for an individual permit, which involves a more detailed evaluation of each water body.
After the Nationwide Permit was struck down by a federal appellate court, Mountain Valley sought individual permits in February for many of the open-cut trench crossings that have yet to be done.
By then, the pipeline had forded more than half of the nearly 1,000 water bodies.
The company has identified 236 remaining crossings in Virginia. Of those, 92 — including the Roanoke River along the Montgomery-Roanoke county line — would entail boring under the water bodies as opposed to digging a trench. DEQ is not considering those crossings, which will require approval from FERC.
As more emphasis has been placed on renewable energy in recent years, opponents fear the huge natural gas infrastructure will lock in reliance on fossil fuels at a time when climate change is becoming a crisis.
Pipeline opponents expressed little confidence in either Mountain Valley’s performance or DEQ’s oversight.
Referring to the company as “Mountain Valley polluters,” Mike Carter, a member of the Franklin County Board of Supervisors, asked the water board Monday: “Are you going to allow them to continue to destroy our waters and streams?”
While DEQ found hundreds of infractions during the first two years of construction, there have been few formal enforcement actions since then. Meeting Tuesday before the public hearing, the water board was told there were no findings of non-compliance from June 20 to Sept. 20.
“Yes, we did have challenges” during the years when there was record rainfall in the region, Robert Cooper, vice president of engineering for Mountain Valley and head of the project, said at Tuesday’s public hearing.
Improvements have since been made, Cooper said in expressing the company’s “unreserved support” for a draft permit that would be one of the last approvals Mountain Valley must obtain for the $6.2 billion project.
Hurst, whose legislative district has 35 miles of pipeline running through it, disputed comments from Cooper and other pipeline workers and supporters.
“I have seen firsthand the impact of construction failures,” he said. “We know that the violations are continuing to occur and are not being addressed in a meaningful way.”