Derek Teaney, an environmental lawyer based in West Virginia, used words like “stunning,” “egregious” and “outrageous” to describe a decision by that state’s environmental agency related to the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
On Wednesday, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection announced the state has waived the requirement that the controversial pipeline project obtain Clean Water Act 401 water quality certification in West Virginia.
“This is an outrageous and unprecedented dereliction of duty by DEP,” said Teaney, a senior attorney with Appalachian Mountain Advocates.
“After assuring a federal court that it was committed to reconsidering whether the MVP would degrade the hundreds of streams it would impact, DEP has thrown up its hands and admitted that it is not up to the task of protecting West Virginia’s environment,” he said.
The department also announced it has restored a previously awarded stormwater permit it had suspended in September “to properly respond to all public comments received.”
The agency said provisions and conditions associated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Nationwide 12 permitting process, which will review the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s stream crossings, along with requirements of the stormwater permit, “will allow for better enforcement capabilities and enhanced protections for the state’s waters.”
As proposed, the pipeline would transport natural gas at high pressure through a buried, 42-inch diameter steel pipe. The 303-mile, $3.7 billion project would begin in Wetzel County, West Virginia, and terminate at the Transco pipeline in Pittsylvania County in Virginia.
On Oct. 13, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the project, noting that Mountain Valley must obtain other authorizations and permits before launching construction.
The Clean Water Act “gives states the discretion to grant, deny or waive water quality certification,” FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said Wednesday. “FERC and the Corps of Army Engineers have no decisional role.”
In March, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection awarded the Mountain Valley project 401 water quality certification. But an appeal of that decision filed by Appalachian Mountain Advocates in federal court ultimately led the agency to vacate the certification.
The department in September announced plans to re-evaluate the certification. Jacob Glance, a spokesman for the department, said then that the agency had determined that “the information used to issue that certification needs to be further evaluated and possibly enhanced.”
Pipeline opponents reported positive reactions at the time to the department’s suggestion that it might enhance the review of the project’s potential impacts.
Now, Teaney said, Appalachian Mountain Advocates is evaluating its legal options for challenging the waiver decision.
He wasn’t the only environmental watchdog appalled Wednesday by the waiver.
Carolyn Reilly of Franklin County has been actively involved in opposing the pipeline, which would burrow through her family’s farm.
“It is shameful that West Virginia has betrayed its responsibility to protect the health and well-being of its citizens,” Reilly said. “Landowners and communities are at risk of losing their most valuable resources, their water and their land; all in the name of profits for private corporations.”
Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, noted that the department is a taxpayer-supported agency responsible for protecting the environment and public health.
“But when it came to one of the biggest projects DEP needed to review to protect water quality, the agency quit on the citizens of the state,” she said.
In an email Wednesday, Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Mountain Valley Pipeline, provided a different take.
“Today’s announcement by the WVDEP reinforces West Virginia’s commitment to protecting the state’s waterbodies,” Cox said, noting that stormwater permitting requirements will increase assurance that “MVP construction activities will be conducted in a manner that will preserve and protect waterbodies along the route.”
In Virginia, the Department of Environmental Quality is reviewing applications from both the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the separate but similar Atlantic Coast Pipeline for 401 water quality certification. DEQ is scheduled to make recommendations about certification for the two projects to the State Water Control Board in December.
Ann Regn, a DEQ spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the agency had no comment about the decision in West Virginia.
Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, said Wednesday that he had not heard whether West Virginia plans to waive the 401 water quality certification for that project.
Glance said the department plans to hold public hearings in December about a stormwater permit for the Atlantic Coast project.
Meanwhile, Roberta Bondurant, a resident of Bent Mountain who has been active in efforts to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline, reacted Wednesday to news of the waiver decision.
“Of all responses, a ‘waiver’ is the most disappointing,” she said. “For West Virginia environmental protection officials to have wasted the opportunity to protect West Virginia waters seems senseless — or else, entirely calculated.
“It seems a signal that the agency decision makers understood that in accurately applying the Clean Water Act protections and so called ‘mitigation’ measures to stream and river crossings and wetlands, through mountainous, karst and highly erodible terrain, that MVP’s application would fail, as it should,” Bondurant said.
She said pipeline opponents remain undeterred.
“In the face of this highly possible watershed disaster, and its attendant economic, environmental and social injustices, we are fueled to continue our challenge to MVP — in Virginia DEQ Water Control Board hearings in December,” Bondurant said.