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Subject Pipelines to Highest Level of Scrutiny
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Subject Pipelines to Highest Level of Scrutiny

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Two of the most controversial large-scale construction projects in the commonwealth — the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines — are moving forward, though not without delays, protests and continued legal and regulatory setbacks.

The pipelines would convey natural gas from the Marcellus shale fields of the Ohio River Valley to customers in the Mid-Atlantic region and southeastern United States. They were announced early in the administration of then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who touted the multi-billion-dollar projects as game changers for job creation and economic development. But from the day they were announced, environmentalists and clean energy advocates have been fighting them tooth and nail.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), the smaller of the two projects, has garnered more news coverage of late as landowners in the path of the pipeline have taken to extreme protests, such as tree-sitting, to protect their property. The 300-mile path of the MVP takes it from northern West Virginia through Southwest Virginia to Pittsylvania County and its terminus in Chatham in Southside Virginia.

In the last month, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has issued notices of violation to the MVP contractor after heavy rainfall in June revealed the inadequacy of provisions to protect against erosion and sediment runoff. At numerous sites along the construction path, sediment flowed into nearby waterways and onto public and private roadways.

And according to the Roanoke Times, this notice of violation by the Virginia DEQ isn’t an isolated incident. Since early April, the company that owns the pipeline and its contractors have been cited six times by environmental regulators in West Virginia and Virginia for similar violations.

A former senior environmental engineer for the Virginia DEQ, speaking with the Times, was blunt in his assessment of the MVP’s problems. David Sligh, who’s now conservation director of pipeline opponent Wild Virginia, said it’s “pretty extraordinary” for one project to have so many violations of such an important set of regulations. “If it’s one and it’s an accident or an oversight, then yea, you give them some slack,” he said. “But if it continues to happen — two, three, five or eight times — that’s too many.”

Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), the larger of the two projects, has largely avoided the violations that have dogged the MVP, but that’s not to say the $6.5 billion project has been controversy-free.

Also beginning in northern West Virginia, the ACP cuts across Virginia from Highland County to Emporia, with a spur connecting northeast to Yorktown. The main pipeline heads into North Carolina and a terminus west of Lumberton. Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted Dominion authority to begin construction in North Carolina.

Though the ACP hasn’t experienced the raft of violations its smaller cousin has, it hasn’t been without controversy. This spring, the state DEQ cited ACP subcontractors for excessive tree clearing and improper sedimentation controls. And earlier this month, the Nelson County Service Authority voted to reject selling water that would have been used in the horizontal drilling method by the ACP contractor. That sale of 40,000 gallons of water per day for two years would have resulted in revenues of $3.5 million to the county. Now, contractors will have water trucked in by at least 10 tankers per day.

Barring any unforeseen events, though, both of these construction projects will proceed apace and both of these pipelines will go into service, though behind schedule. Those hoping against hope to stop them simply need to deal with that reality. What we must do going forward is hold the developers and their contractors to the highest standards of accountability to protect the environment. With the MVP, that means we should expect the state DEQ to significantly tighten oversight and impose hefty fines and other penalties for construction violations. And with the ACP, the DEQ should use that same level of scrutiny and enforcement powers.

The clock can’t be turned back, but at least going forward, government oversight should be as strict as the law allows.

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