Nearly all of the trees along the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline have been cut down, leaving a 125-foot-wide scar on the landscape that runs for miles.
The next step will be for construction crews to grade the right of way and dig trenches for the buried natural gas pipeline, which will cross streams and wetlands more than 500 times on its way through Southwest Virginia.
Even as work on the $3.7 billion project nears its halfway point, there’s unfinished business before the State Water Control Board.
Faced with growing opposition from those who say clean waters will be dirtied by pipeline construction, the board decided in April to accept public comments on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit that governs stream crossings.
The public comment period ended Friday. It’s unclear what the board will do next — or even when it will meet to discuss the matter.
A spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the agency that works with the State Water Control Board, said earlier in the week that the panel of seven governor-appointed citizens is not expected to meet until sometime in August.
That would be too late, critics say.
“By August, it [the pipeline] could be half to three-quarters done, so what would the point be?” said Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg.
On Tuesday, Hurst sent a letter to the board asking that it meet by the end of June.
“Given that construction of the pipeline is rapidly progressing, a timely review of public comments pertaining to the adequacy of the Nationwide Permit 12 process is vitally important,” Hurst wrote.
Nationwide 12 is the name for a permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers that is meant to protect streams and rivers that will be temporarily dammed or diverted while construction workers dig trenches across their beds to run the pipeline.
Pipeline opponents contend the federal permitting process takes a one-size-fits-all approach that does not analyze how individual streams will be harmed by erosion from construction sites, the loss of forest canopy, blasting of bedrock and other impacts.
“I watched the nationwide permit scope get significantly ratcheted down over a period of time,” water board member Robert Wayland, a former administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said during the April meeting.
“Quite frankly, we felt, and the Army agreed, that it had been ‘Honk if you want a permit.’ ”
When the board decided to re-open public comment beginning in early May, it limited input to specific streams and wetlands that will be crossed by Mountain Valley and a similar pipeline that will run through Central Virginia, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Commenters were asked to identify water bodies using reference numbers contained in tables on the DEQ website.
But according to David Sligh, conservation director of Wild Virginia, the group has identified about 80 streams to be crossed by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that do not appear on DEQ’s website.
Similar problems exist with the data on Mountain Valley crossings, according to comments submitted by Robert and Roberta Johnson of Roanoke County. As a retired environmental engineer for DEQ, Robert Johnson found that some stream descriptions lacked information on threatened or endangered species that inhabit the waters.
Such designations are critical to scheduling construction for times of the year when the impact on fish and other aquatic life is minimized, the Johnsons wrote in their six-page letter to DEQ.
Those and other concerns should convince the water board to step in with protections that the Nationwide 12 permit lacks, pipeline opponents say.
To do that, the board must navigate a regulatory labyrinth.
Several years ago, when the 303-mile pipeline was being studied by a number of state and federal agencies, Virginia decided to limit its review to so-called “upland areas,” ceding individual stream crossings to the Army Corps.
During a contentious and confusing meeting in December, the board voted 5-2 to issue a water quality certification to Mountain Valley, meaning that it found a “reasonable assurance” that streams and rivers would not be harmed. The Army Corps granted its permit several weeks later.
But state approval should “not be interpreted as limiting or otherwise relieving” Mountain Valley of the obligations of the Army Corps permit and other requirements, according to a certification order that aimed to preserve some board authority over water crossings.
During the April meeting, one board member suggested that it revoke the certificate or at least reopen discussions about additional protections for certain streams.
And that was before Mountain Valley crews ran into problems containing storm water runoff from construction sites in West Virginia and Virginia.
A key concern by pipeline opponents is that harmful sediment dislodged by clearing land and digging trenches on steep mountainsides will be washed into nearby streams, where it will damage sensitive ecosystems and contaminate private and public drinking water supplies.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has issued at least three notices of violation to Mountain Valley, finding that the company failed to implement adequate erosion and sediment control measures. The most recent enforcement action was posted to the agency’s website this week.
Virginia’s environmental agency is also investigating reports of erosion in Franklin County and elsewhere.
Mountain Valley officials have said they are moving quickly to correct any problems.
“We remain committed to working with local, state and federal authorities to ensure the safe and responsible construction and operation of this project to meet the demand for affordable, reliable domestic natural gas in the region,” company spokeswoman Natalie Cox wrote in an email.
The water board had been scheduled to meet June 11, which would have been about two weeks after the public comment period closed. But the meeting was canceled after DEQ extended the comment period until Friday. The decision to allow more time for input came after the agency had to shut down its website May 22 after a “malicious party” tried to hack into the system.
It was not clear Friday exactly how many public comments have been submitted. A DEQ spokeswoman could not be reached. But according to the Sierra Club, the number stood at more than 3,000.
Virginians are speaking out in large numbers because “they know that using this inadequate permit to try to protect Virginia’s waters from the MVP and ACP is like trying to put ten pounds of manure in a five pound sack,” the Sierra Club said in a statement.
As for whether the water board can meet before August, member Timothy Hayes said Friday that it’s too soon to make a call on that.
“I have no idea how long it’s going to take to digest all these comments,” Hayes said. “Without having that information, I have no idea what the board will do.”
Efforts by The Roanoke Times to reach the other six board members were unsuccessful.
Sligh said he hopes that board members will not take their cues from staff members at DEQ, which has come under fierce criticism for what pipeline opponents contend is a lackluster approach to environmental protection.
“DEQ is not supposed to tell the board when it’s going to meet, and how and why,” Sligh said. “The board has that authority.”