David Paylor, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, listened Thursday afternoon to residents of a small community in Giles County who are destined to live in a “high consequence area” if the Mountain Valley Pipeline project moves forward.
Later, on Thursday evening, Paylor heard from residents of Roanoke County and Franklin County who, like their counterparts in and around the village of Newport, fear the pipeline could divert or taint the pristine waters that sustain them.
The first meeting was at the Newport Community Center. Much of the village would be within the 1,115 foot “potential impact radius” if the pipeline ruptured.
The second was at Cave Spring High School in Roanoke County. About 137 people attended the Newport meeting. About 140 showed up at the high school. A total of 36 people spoke to Paylor and his DEQ colleague Fred Cunningham at the two meetings.
The settings were different. But the concerns Paylor heard centered on a common question: How is DEQ going to protect water quality and wells and springs from a 42-inch diameter, buried natural gas pipeline whose deep trench will pass through areas rife with sinkholes and caves, travel up and down steep slopes, encounter shallow bedrock that requires blasting and burrow through highly-erodible soils and areas prone to landslides?
A companion question was this: If the worst happens and a well goes dry or suddenly reveals contaminants, or if sediment chokes a stream, or if groundwater that moves miles underground at a fast clip, often in a direction not yet identified, is polluted, what happens then?
“Apologies will not be sweet solace,” said Lynn Williams, whose property in Newport is on the pipeline route.
Paylor responded with a consistent message. It hinged on the phrase “reasonable assurance.” He said DEQ will not recommend to the State Water Control Board that the Mountain Valley Pipeline receive the water quality certification it seeks if the company’s plans for the pipeline fail to provide a reasonable assurance that water quality will be protected.
One of Paylor’s answers to the companion question about a worst-case scenario was not well received in Newport, where he told Jerolyn Deplazes that if she lost access to her water an alternative source would have to be provided.
Mary Beth Coffey of Bent Mountain told Paylor she’d recently learned about “water buffaloes,” a type of water storage tank. She made it clear nothing could replace the clean, clear water that currently serves her home.
“We are in line for our water to be destroyed,” she said.
Several people, including Richard Caywood, assistant county administrator for Roanoke County, and Roberta Bondurant, a resident of Bent Mountain active in pipeline opposition, advocated that DEQ require Mountain Valley to post a substantial bond that could fund attempts to restore water to residents who might lose it because of the pipeline.
Paylor said DEQ will research the bond question.
DEQ had held a public hearing Tuesday in Radford and another Wednesday in Chatham. DEQ sought comment then about draft conditions the agency might recommend attaching if the State Water Control Board grants Mountain Valley Pipeline the Clean Water Act 401 water quality certification the company needs to proceed in Virginia.
DEQ agreed to participate in the two meetings Thursday after complaints from Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, and Del. Joseph Yost, R-Pearisburg, and others that the two public hearings were both insufficient and inconveniently located for many people along the pipeline route.
In June, Habeeb and Yost had written Paylor after DEQ clarified that the agency would rely on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ permitting process to scrutinize pipeline crossings of streams and wetlands. The delegates observed that constituents were shocked about this deferral, having been led to believe in April that DEQ would evaluate these crossings.
Paylor defended DEQ’s approach, noting that the agency was “going far beyond what has been done in the past and what is legally required.”
DEQ said its proposed draft conditions for certification address, among other things: engineering practices for steep slopes and landslide prone areas; environmental monitoring and inspections; plans and procedures for working in karst landscapes of sinkholes and caves; spill prevention; water quality monitoring; protection of streamside vegetation; and protection of public water supplies.
The agency’s brochure about the water certification public hearings reported that “DEQ’s preliminary decision is to recommend issuance of Section 401 certification with conditions.” On Thursday, Paylor clarified that no decision has been made about a recommendation. He repeatedly said that public comments received this week will inform DEQ’s recommendations.
He said DEQ’s environmental review of the Mountain Valley Pipeline has to be guided by “science and law.” He provoked a rare laugh Thursday in Roanoke County by acknowledging, wryly, that no matter what DEQ decides, it will be sued.
The same brochure noted that the public hearings this week were not intended to record comments about DEQ’s work to control erosion and sediment from the project. On Thursday, several people, including environmental activists Rupert Cutler of Roanoke and Diana Christopulos of Salem, asked about erosion and sediment controls and stormwater management. Paylor said Mountain Valley’s construction plans will be posted online and that DEQ will accept erosion and sediment-related comments through Oct. 13.
Karen Scott of Bent Mountain, a soil scientist whose property is on a pipeline route, told Paylor that three springs and a perennial stream on her land have not been identified by the pipeline company. She described Bent Mountain as “a soggy plateau” where tributaries supply water to Bottom Creek, a high quality stream. She said the pipeline will sit in water on the plateau and is destined to leak.
Last year, the Virginia Department of Health called for a survey examining areas within 1,000 feet of the pipeline to identify people and properties that use local and regional groundwater and surface water for recreation or human consumption. Dwayne Roadcap, a division director, observed in December that “protecting water quality for these property owners is a paramount concern.”
Paylor said Thursday that DEQ will consult with the Department of Health about this recommendation.
Before the Newport meeting, more than 55 people gathered outside the community center with placards expressing support for natural gas and opposition to coal.
The deadline for public comments about the draft conditions for the 401 water quality certification is August 22.
More information about the DEQ’s review of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and separate-but-similar Atlantic Coast Pipeline — along with instructions for filing written comments about the water certification conditions — can be found at http://www.deq.virginia.gov/ Programs/Water/Protection RequirementsforPipelines.aspx