Mountain Valley Pipeline

Cahas Mountain Road is mud-covered on Friday.

State regulators have put a stop to construction of part of the Mountain Valley Pipeline swamped by a rainstorm, saying work cannot continue until proper erosion control measures are established.

Crews were using heavy equipment to cut trees and clear land along the natural gas pipeline’s right of way in Franklin County when heavy rains Thursday night and Friday morning swept away much of the soil they had unearthed.

Both lanes of nearby Cahas Mountain Road were covered by up to eight inches of mud.

“It’s clearly unacceptable,” Ann Regn, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said Sunday.

According to both DEQ and Mountain Valley officials, none of the mudflow reached streams, where it could have done the most damage. Nonetheless, the agency is investigating how check dams and other erosion control measures failed to prevent the mess.

Environmental regulators received several calls last week, before the rain started, from members of the public who were concerned that heavy equipment being used to remove trees and clear a 125-foot swath for pipeline construction was exposing the land to potential runoff problems.

Although Mountain Valley crews had erosion control devices in place, “there were some things that completely disappeared” after the rains, including concrete barriers, Regn said.

“Initial reviews indicate the controls were installed properly; however, the circumstances appear unusual and an ultimate cause is under investigation,” Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox wrote in an email Friday.

“Upon learning of the issue, MVP crews promptly began remediation activities,” Cox wrote. “The project team remains committed to the safe and responsible construction of this important underground infrastructure project.”

Opponents have predicted that building a 303-mile buried pipeline along steep mountain slopes will dislodge sediment, which can contaminate private wells and public water supplies if it is allowed to enter nearby streams and wetlands.

Already, regulators have pointed to problems with erosion control in Wetzel County, West Virginia, where the pipeline will start a path that will take it through Southwest Virginia before connecting with an existing pipeline in Pittsylvania County.

On April 25, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a notice of violation against Mountain Valley after an inspection found sediment-laden water that had flowed beyond the perimeters of where a compressor station is under construction.

Out-of-control runoff from a hill on a second site caused part of the slope to give way, according to records filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

And an environmental firm that is monitoring pipeline work for the U.S. Forest Service documented inadequate maintenance on two access roads in the Jefferson National Forest that are being used by Mountain Valley officials. The report noted deep ruts in the road and noncompliance with erosion and sediment control requirements.

Earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law that gave DEQ the authority to order work on the pipeline to cease immediately if there has been, or is likely to be, a “substantial adverse impact to water quality.”

The suspension of construction in Franklin County over the weekend did not rise to that level, with Regn saying that state and Mountain Valley officials agreed informally that stabilization of the area must happen before regular work can proceed.

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, said he believes it’s time for DEQ to issue a full stop-work order.

“I think it’s well past time,” Hurst said Sunday. “For a lot of people, they think it’s too late already — a day late and a dollar short.”

Hurst made his comments after attending a rally where about 50 people decried the Forest Service’s decision to cut off food and water to a protester who is blocking the pipeline’s route through Giles County.

Known by her Appalachian Trail nickname “Nutty,” the woman has been camped since March 28 in a platform suspended from a 50-foot pole erected in the middle of a construction access road.

“Shame USFS,” read one of the posters held by members of the crowd, which gathered outside of Forest Service headquarters in Roanoke County. “Feed Nutty Now,” another sign stated.

Since the Forest Service cut off supplies being sent up to the woman from a support team camped nearby, she has been living off a reserve of energy bars, applesauce and rainwater collected from a tarp that covers her tiny living space.

Last week, a lawsuit filed by the Rutherford Institute of Charlottesville raised questions about Nutty’s treatment.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of a physician who became concerned about her medical condition and hiked nearly two miles to help her – only to be denied access by Forest Service law enforcement officers who have cordoned off the protest site.

In a recent statement posted to the Facebook page of Appalachians Against Pipelines, Nutty wrote about her opposition to the industrial and commercial forces that seek to destroy nature in the name of progress, and the government entities that support them.

“To hell with all that,” she wrote.

“To hell with comfort if it comes at the cost of complicity.”

Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.