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New citizen monitoring group to watch for violations during pipeline construction

New citizen monitoring group to watch for violations during pipeline construction

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NEWPORT — Doug Martin told a crowd of more than 100 people about his daily walks through Newport, the village where his family has lived for eight generations. The local historian walks by businesses, homes, covered bridges and historic buildings. But soon, he’s worried, it’s all going to change.

“In the early dawn we used to be blessed with the sounds of cow bells, church bells and school bells, as Newport came alive with the sights and sounds of country living,” he said. “However, the ridges and valleys now carry the sound of chainsaws as weapons of mass destruction.”

Martin spoke at a ceremony Sunday afternoon at the Newport-Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church, less than 900 feet from where the proposed path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline will bisect the historic village.

Sunday’s ceremony was a somber one as residents sang and shared “lamentations” about the start of the pipeline’s construction in West Virginia and the seemingly inevitable start in Virginia.

But residents quickly switched to action when Donna Pitt, a member of Preserve Giles County, announced a new group: Mountain Valley Watch.

“They may be here, but they’re not invisible,” she said. “We know they’re going to violate the regulations.”

Mountain Valley Watch will act as a citizen monitoring group to ensure the Mountain Valley Pipeline construction is done safely and legally, Pitt said.

The group mobilizes landowners and residents to document the state of the land as it is now and as it changes under construction. Everything from drone footage to cellphone photos will help, Pitt said.

Mountain Valley Watch has partnered with the Sierra Club and New River Geographics, a small start-up of geographic information system professionals in Blacksburg. New River Geographics will help provide the monitoring and drone technology so the group can have an interactive map online of the pipeline before, during and after construction.

The New River Geographics team has already started developing an app that will help landowners report construction violations they may see on their own properties. By creating an automated process, they can mobilize a large group of residents and landowners to monitor the construction and easily report that information to the app, said Jason Shelton, a member of New River Geographics.

In turn, the New River Geographics teams and leaders within Mountain Valley Watch can report the violations to the Department of Environmental Quality and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission with proper documentation.

These violations could be anything from sediment running into streams or inlet protection violations, Shelton said.

Right now, the group is applying for grant funding to help with the project. New River Geographics has already begun mapping the pipeline and defining each parcel of land along its path. It has created maps of not only the pipeline, but also the width of its construction, blast and evacuation zones on its website: newrivergeographics.com.

“We’re doing the best we can to help a community and make sure their water supply stays clean,” Shelton said. “Because they haven’t proven they can build this thing safely, we’re going to watch them to make sure they do.”

Residents and other community members were signing up by the dozens to join Mountain Valley Watch. The group is looking for volunteers to help landowners monitor their properties if they don’t feel comfortable doing it on their own or using the automated system.

The organization also plans to hold training sessions for those who want to learn the reporting system and what to look for when Mountain Valley begins construction.

FERC has begun monitoring environmental compliance along the construction route but so far hasn’t noted any environmental problems.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, a natural gas line from Dominion Energy extending from West Virginia to North Carolina, received a violation notice Friday from the DEQ. Construction crews cut down trees in 15 spots that were designated as off-limits because of their proximity to wetlands.

The news of these violations energized the residents of Newport on Sunday afternoon.

Lara Mack from Appalachian Voices, an environmental group based in North Carolina, said she was honored to fight the pipeline with the residents of Giles County and encouraged them to keep going.

“It will continue to be as challenging as it has been and probably challenging in new and terrible ways,” she said. “Recognize now that you’re standing on a legacy of struggle that came before you, and you are literally building history and a legacy of struggle that people will stand on after you.”

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Alison Graham covers Roanoke County and Salem news. She’s originally from Indianapolis and a graduate of Indiana University.

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