After issuing a water-quality certification for the Mountain Valley Pipeline last week, the State Water Control Board held a public hearing today to consider a comparable certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). Public comment this morning tended to focus on the question of whether new Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) rules designed to cover pipeline construction in mountainous “uplands” are up to the task of protecting water quality.
Two hundred or more pipeline foes packed the Trinity Family Life Center in Henrico County to voice their support of speakers critical of the proposed 605-mile natural gas pipeline, mainly on the grounds that it will threaten water quality in mountainous western Virginia communities. But many of the speakers, including state legislators, retired employees of Dominion Energy (managing partner of the pipeline), and others expressed support for the project which they said will promote economic development in eastern Virginia.
Even with speakers limited to three minutes at the podium, the hearing was expected to last into the evening, and the water board was not expected to vote until tomorrow.
Opponents hammered home the argument that DEQ’s regulations were inadequate to protect water quality in steep mountainous terrain with landslide-prone slopes and complex karst geology with sinkholes and underground rivers. In particular, they charged, the Board relied upon ACP erosion-control plans that have not been seen yet to prevent sediment from fouling streams and underground drinking water.
A major sub-theme of those hostile to the pipeline was distrust of the regulatory process, which, given the approval of the MVP project last week, showed every sign of going against the pipeline foes. Typical was Cabell Smith, a Nelson County resident, who said that the regulations provided “no assurance” that water quality standards will be maintained under a “corrupt corporate and political system.”
Some insisted that democracy itself was under assault. Richard Averett, a landowner in the path of the ACP, called the pipeline an “unprecedented threat to eminent domain” and a “threat to democracy.” The pipeline, he said, will scuttle his plans to build a five-star boutique resort in the Rockfish Valley. In an impassioned speech that brought pipeline foes to their feet, he faulted “a corrupt governor more interested in mining the pockets of his pals and future donors than protecting the rights of citizens.”
DEQ devised the certification for upland water quality out of a concern that the existing regulatory framework did not address the unique problems encountered along the proposed pipeline route, said Melanie Davenport, DEQ’s water permitting division director. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulates wetlands and streams, while a different set of regulations governs erosion & sediment controls. The 401 water quality certification, she said, fills the gaps.
DEQ acknowledges that the digging of trenches and laying of pipeline on steep, erosion-prone slopes can create problems that pipeline construction does not pose in flatland and hill country. Sediment-generating erosion is particularly problematic in karst terrain when underground water flows are out-of-sight and difficult to track. Therefore, said Davenport, the commonwealth decided to add an additional certification.
According to Davenport, conditions attached to the ACP water-quality certificate provide, among other features:
- A prohibition against the removal of riparian buffers within 50 feet of surface waters.
- A narrower construction right of way, 75 feet instead of 125 feet, as pipeline construction nears water and stream crossings.
- Additional protections to accommodate karst terrain, including the use of dye-tracing studies to update karst maps.
- Tougher conditions on the withdrawal of surface waters.
- Tougher conditions on the release of water used in hydrostatic tests (conducted to measure the integrity of pipeline joints and seams).
- Implementation of water quality monitoring plans to track erosion during and after construction.
- Spill-prevention plans
A point made repeatedly by pro-pipeline speakers is that the DEQ regulations provide “added layers of protection” to water quality.
Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, Del. Roxanne Robinson, R-Chesterfield, and Del. Buddy Fowler, R-Ashland, all spoke in favor of certifying the pipeline. Wagner said that added gas-transportation capacity is especially critical for economic growth in Hampton Roads, where some 100 large customers were called upon to curtail their natural gas consumption during the intense cold of the polar vortex a few years ago. The tight gas supply will make it difficult to recruit any energy-intensive industry to the region, he said.
“There is not enough upstream capacity today to serve existing customers and new customers,” confirmed Jim Kibler, president of Virginia Natural Gas, which serves Hampton Roads. Other than the ACP, he said, “We’re out of options for South Hampton Roads.”
“Our city and region need the supply of natural gas from the pipeline,” said Edwin C. Daly, assistant city manager of the city of Emporia in Southside.
Technology has advanced to the point where the ACP will be “the safest pipeline ever built,” said Paul McCormick with the International Union of Operating Engineers.
While a handful of critics disputed the positive economic impact of the pipeline, most pipeline foes focused on the negative impact on water quality.
Tina Smusz, representing the Virginia chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, called DEQ’s regulatory approach a “flawed framework” that ignores the impact of water-born toxins that could pose “grave health threats.” Toxins buried in sediments along stream banks could be exposed by erosion and make their way into local water supplies, she said. DEQ should get predictive data on toxin release before granting certification, she said. While DEQ proposes to monitor water quality and execute contingency plans should problems arise, that’s an inadequate after-the-fact solution, she added. Continue reading