A chorus of regional voices contends that a plan by Virginia’s environmental agency to hold just two public hearings about the proposed, deeply controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline fails to adequately serve a key constituency: the public.
On June 30, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality announced plans to convene a public hearing in Radford on Aug. 8 and a hearing in Chatham the next night to solicit public comment about the department’s draft plans to protect water quality along the pipeline’s route through Virginia.
The next day, Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, fired off an email to DEQ officials, noting it was “totally unacceptable that you all are not holding a single hearing in our affected area.”
Habeeb’s district includes Salem, Craig County and portions of Roanoke and Montgomery counties.
On Monday, he said DEQ’s plan for two hearings suggests the agency is “trying to avoid robust public dialogue.” He said he has constituents on Bent Mountain experiencing “an existential environmental crisis” because of the pipeline’s potential threats to the watershed there and the region at large.
“At the very least, a separate Roanoke Valley meeting should be held by DEQ for the citizens of Roanoke County and Craig,” he said.
It sounds like that won’t happen. On Wednesday, DEQ indicated it will stick to the plan for two meetings.
Recipients of Habeeb’s July 1 email included DEQ Director David Paylor, who replied July 5.
“We have attempted to locate the venues for public hearings so that citizens who wish to participate are in the range of not much more than 90 minutes of drive time,” he wrote.
On Wednesday, Ann Regn, a DEQ spokeswoman, reiterated Paylor’s response, noting also that DEQ worked to secure locations able to accommodate at least 500 people.
“We worked hard to find locations that would not be more than a 90 minute drive for most people,” she said in an email. “Additional criteria that we considered included: availability of State Water Control Board members to officiate at the hearings, availability and capability of the venue and agency resources.”
As proposed, the pipeline’s 303-mile route would cross from West Virginia into Virginia in Giles County. It would then pass through the counties of Montgomery, Craig, Roanoke and Franklin en route to the Transco pipeline in Pittsylvania County. The route, which would total about 106 miles in Virginia, would not pass through Radford.
The 42-inch diameter pipeline, which would transport natural gas at high pressure, would be buried in a trench ranging in depth from about 5.5 feet to 9 feet, depending on terrain. The construction right-of-way would be about 125 feet wide in most places.
The full 303-mile route of the pipeline and its access roads would require about 1,108 water body crossings. About 216 miles of the route would cross shallow bedrock that might require blasting. In addition, about 67 miles would travel through karst landscapes characterized by sinkholes, caves, springs and underground aquifers vulnerable to contamination. The pipeline would cross thousands of acres of soils prone to erosion.
These considerations have raised concerns about the project’s potential hazards to water quality and put DEQ on a hot seat.
As an interstate pipeline, the Mountain Valley project needs approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission before construction can begin.
FERC’s track record and a recent final environmental impact statement released by the commission suggest approval is likely, leaving pipeline opponents hopeful that DEQ might decline to grant a state water quality permit that the project would need.
Paylor emphasized to Habeeb that DEQ’s scrutiny of the pipeline’s potential effects on water quality will be unprecedented. He said the department’s “dedicated but limited staff” is “going far beyond what has been done in the past and what is legally required.”
And, he noted, people need not attend hearings to comment about the department’s draft plans to protect water quality. DEQ also is accepting written comments, submitted electronically or through the mail, until Aug. 22.
Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, also has called on DEQ to hold a Roanoke meeting. He advised Paylor last month that he is a member of the Roanoke River Basin Advisory Committee and noted that the Roanoke River watershed “is vital to this region.”
Habeeb’s Republican colleague, Del. Joseph Yost of Pearisburg, said DEQ should hold hearings close to people who could be affected by the pipeline, including residents of Newport and other areas of Giles County and portions of Montgomery County.
Yost said Monday that a meeting in either Blacksburg or Giles County would be more convenient for many of his constituents than a Radford hearing.
“DEQ is stunningly tone deaf to the situation,” Yost said. “I want individuals to be able to have a voice.”
Both Habeeb and Yost are running for re-election.
Chris Hurst, a Democrat seeking Yost’s 12th District seat, also weighed in about the DEQ meetings and the importance of clean water to people in the district, which includes significant stretches of karst.
“This is the element of the proposed MVP that keeps me up at night,” Hurst said in an email. “People in Giles and Montgomery County rely on safe, clean drinking water, often from private wells. Given my deep concerns about the potential for landslides, sinkholes and leakage from the pipe itself, this could poison the water for so many families.”
Hurst, like Yost, called for a public hearing either in Giles County or Blacksburg.
Politicians weren’t the only people clamoring for more meetings.
Diana Christopulos is president of both the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club and the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition and is a member of the Roanoke Group of the Sierra Club.
“Given the fact that Mountain Valley Pipeline would cross tributaries of the Roanoke River over 120 times upstream of Salem and Roanoke, it seems critical that the downstream public have an opportunity to comment on a project that could have major impacts on drinking water and storm water,” Christopulos said in an email Wednesday.
Carolyn Reilly and her family own and operate a Franklin County farm that Mountain Valley has attempted to survey for a pipeline route. Reilly works also with Bold Appalachia and Bold Alliance, groups opposed to the Mountain Valley Pipeline and similar but separate Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“I think that DEQ holding two public hearings regarding the MVP is their pathetic, weak attempt to seem like they care,” Reilly said. “As has been stated by many others, the locations are not ideal and relevant for where the majority of water crossings and concerned landowners and citizens are.”
Reilly said she hopes Franklin County residents will attend the Chatham hearing.
DEQ came under fire in May after the department reported it had miscommunicated when advising that it would scrutinize each wetlands and stream crossing by the pipeline.
DEQ clarified that it will rely on the Army Corps of Engineers’ permitting process to examine stream and wetlands crossings. The department said it would focus instead on potential threats to water quality from other aspects of pipeline construction.
Critics responded that the Corps’ Nationwide Permit is a streamlined “blanket permit” process that would not effectively evaluate long-term and cumulative effects to streams and wetlands.
Now, DEQ seeks public comment on draft conditions that it would include in the state’s certification process if the State Water Control Board ultimately opts to grant Mountain Valley the necessary permit.
Bent Mountain resident Roberta Bondurant said many people concerned about the pipeline would not be able to access the internet to offer comments to DEQ and would likely benefit from hearing from other people at public meetings.
“It’s certainly true that people don’t have to attend a public hearing to offer a written comment,” Bondurant said. “But because of age, education, limited internet access or disability, there will be many rural residents who will be left out of the public process absent the opportunity to speak personally to a hearing official.”
Meanwhile, Yost said he believes the pipeline threatens resources he holds dear.
“There are a lot of reasons you can be opposed to the pipeline but for me it’s personal,” he said. “I’ve fished a lot of these streams and hiked the trails.”
The draft conditions that DEQ might attach to a water quality certification for the Mountain Valley Pipeline can be found at www.deq.virginia.gov/Portals/0/DEQ/Water/Pipelines/MVPfinaldraft401cert.pdf
Instructions for filing comments can be found at www.deq.virginia.gov/Portals/0/DEQ/Water/Pipelines/final%20notice-mvp.pdf.