The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality reported Thursday that it will require the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline project to provide details about individual crossings of streams and wetlands to demonstrate that the crossings will comply with state water quality standards.
The DEQ said it would demand the same from the separate but similar Atlantic Coast Pipeline — requiring what is referred to as “individual 401 water quality certification” from the Virginia Water Protection permit program.
Each interstate pipeline project is seeking approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Each has garnered support in some circles and stirred fierce opposition in others.
The state could have relied solely on a nationwide U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to regulate the stream and wetlands crossings or it could have issued a “general” Virginia Water Protection permit that simply calls for basic environmental protections to be met, said Bill Hayden, a DEQ spokesman.
“The ‘individual’ certification looks at each wetland, stream crossing, etc., separately, to determine specific requirements that would be necessary,” Hayden said in an email.
He said the state typically would work with an applicant to address concerns about individual crossings rather than rejecting the 401 water quality certification outright.
Pipeline opponents reacted favorably to Thursday’s announcement by DEQ. Environmental watchdogs have feared that the department might be less than vigilant in its scrutiny of the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast projects because Gov. Terry McAuliffe has voiced emphatic support for both.
Although Thursday’s announcement did not fully allay fears about DEQ’s relative tenacity, it was “a step in the right direction,” said Rick Webb, program coordinator of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition.
David Sligh is the conservation director for Wild Virginia, an investigator for the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition and an environmental attorney who once worked as a senior engineer at DEQ.
“I am very happy and gratified to hear this news,” Sligh said Thursday.
“This is what the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition has demanded for many months, because individual Clean Water Act section 401 reviews are the only way the state of Virginia can properly protect our waters and involve the public in the process, as we believe it is legally required to do.”
Sligh, Webb and other pipeline opponents believe a full-fledged review of the projects would provide evidence that there is no way they could be built and operated without violating water quality standards.
Bill Wolf, co-chair of Preserve Craig County, shares this view.
“If DEQ really does its job to protect our streams and water supplies, it will refuse to issue the 401 certificates,” Wolf said.
Each pipeline project would bury a 42-inch diameter natural gas transmission pipeline after clearing trees and other vegetation from a 125-foot-wide construction right-of-way. Each would cross hundreds of streams and wetlands along their routes. Each would climb and descend steep slopes that would be vulnerable to erosion and related sluicing of sediment into streams.
Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, issued a statement Thursday responding to DEQ’s announcement.
“The DEQ decision to utilize the Army Corps of Engineers’ nationwide permit 12 for wetland and stream crossings while also requiring an individual approval process for 401 certification will provide for public review of the protective measures we’ve adopted to preserve water quality,” Ruby said.
“We stand ready to work cooperatively with DEQ on an efficient review and timely process,” he added.
Ruby said the current route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cross 873 waterbodies and 663 wetlands in Virginia.
Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Mountain Valley Pipeline, said the company has been determined from the beginning to design a route with the least overall effect on the environment, including streams and wetlands.
She noted that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection on March 23 issued an individual 401 water quality certification for that state’s portion of the route.
In an email, she said Mountain Valley looked forward to working with DEQ “to obtain and meet Virginia’s water quality certification requirements along with those of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ nationwide permit 12 for wetland and stream crossings.”
Neither Mountain Valley nor Atlantic Coast has applied yet to DEQ for the water quality certification.
The department said the 401 certifications “will ensure that Virginia water quality standards are maintained in all areas affected by the projects.” It said that the public will have a chance to review and comment on the certifications and that DEQ will hold related public hearings.
Proposed final certifications will be brought before the State Water Control Board, DEQ said.
Meanwhile, Webb said, questions linger about how DEQ would regulate and monitor stormwater management along the ambitious infrastructure projects, about whether the department would limit the length of open trench day-to-day and about public access to the projects’ erosion and sediment control plans.
FERC plans to release in June separate final environmental impact statements for the two pipelines. The commission will have 90 days to decide whether to approve the projects.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline’s 303-mile route would bring it through West Virginia and then through the Virginia counties of Giles, Montgomery, Craig, Roanoke, Franklin and Pittsylvania. Boards of supervisors in Giles, Montgomery, Craig and Roanoke have expressed opposition to the project.