Mountain Valley Pipeline will pay $2.15 million to resolve a lawsuit by Virginia regulators that accused it of repeatedly violating environmental standards in building its natural gas pipeline.
The agreement, announced Friday by Attorney General Mark Herring, also requires the company to submit to court-ordered and supervised compliance with regulations meant to curb erosion and sedimentation.
“This consent decree significantly strengthens our ability to ensure MVP is meeting its environmental responsibilities,” said David Paylor, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
“The decree stipulates that MVP will be automatically fined for any violations of the terms of this agreement with the Commonwealth of Virginia, while also imposing a significant fine for past noncompliance,” Paylor said.
A lawsuit filed last December by DEQ and the State Water Control Board accused Mountain Valley of violating stormwater control measures more than 300 times during the first year of building the 303-mile pipeline.
The flaws, all of which have been corrected, stemmed in large part from record rainfalls last year, Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox said.
The company has agreed to conditions — which include hiring independent monitors to make inspections beyond what had previously been required by the state — that will “further enhance the performance of [erosion and sediment control] measures for the remainder of MVP’s planned construction activities,” Cox wrote in an email.
Digging trenches for the buried pipeline along steep mountainsides has led to widespread runoff, washing harmful sediment into nearby streams and onto the property of adjacent landowners.
Herring called the settlement one of the most significant financial penalties in a case of this kind in Virginia.
Even more important, he said in a news release, are the requirements for additional monitoring and quicker fines for future violations, should there be any.
The independent monitors, who must be approved by DEQ, will make bi-weekly assessments. In the past, the state had used its own inspectors and ones from a third-party contractor to keep a watch on work.
A 30-day public comment period will be held before the settlement is submitted for approval by a judge in Henrico County Circuit Court.
“MVP didn’t comply with Virginia law because they can’t comply with Virginia law,” Russell Chisholm, co-chair of the Protect Our Water Heritage Rights coalition, said in a written statement.
“These continued sedimentation problems display not only MVP’s unwillingness to make any effort to protect Virginia’s waterways, but also the inadequacy of erosion and sediment controls” approved by state regulators, he said.
The $5 billion project, being built by a private venture of five energy companies, still faces significant hurdles.
Two key permits for the pipeline — one to cross more than 1,000 streams and wetlands in West Virginia and Southwest Virginia and the second to pass through the Jefferson National Forest — were vacated or suspended after environmental groups filed legal challenges.
A third lawsuit, which claims a permit to protect endangered species was inadequate, prompted Mountain Valley to suspend new construction in much of Virginia until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can reconsider its approval.
The loss of so many permits was cited by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, who called for a full stop-work order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
FERC granted approval of the pipeline in 2017 on the condition that it obtain the permits it now lacks, Hurst wrote in an Oct. 1 letter to the commission that was signed by 17 other state lawmakers.
Those from Southwest Virginia included Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke.
The letter also stated there is no need for the natural gas to be shipped by the pipeline.
“At a time of rapid climate change, this pipeline would lock not just Virginia, but the entire Southeast region into decades of climate-disrupting fossil fuel use,” the letter stated.
FERC, which has received many requests to stop work since pipeline construction began in February 2018, had not responding publicly to the letter by Friday afternoon. But late in the day, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay to the Fish and Wildlife permit, which according to the Sierra Club means that all construction must stop until its lawsuit is resolved.
In May, Mountain Valley agreed to pay a fine of nearly $266,000 for sediment and erosion control violations in West Virginia.
The Virginia enforcement action was different, in that DEQ referred it to the Attorney General’s Office, which used a consent decree approach that led to a higher fine and more stringent protections against any future violations.
Herring said the settlement “really sets a new standard for resolution of environmental cases in Virginia.”