By Ladelle McWhorter and Mike Tidwell
McWhorter is chair of the group Virginia Organizing. Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network
When it comes to the construction of two controversial fracked-gas pipelines across the state of Virginia, here’s Governor Terry McAuliffe’s basic message: It’s not my problem.
The pipelines would seize nearly a thousand-mile strip of public and private land while clear-cutting a broad path through our mountain forests. McAuliffe’s response: “It’s a federal issue.” The pipelines would trigger new greenhouse gas pollution equal to a doubling of the state’s current power plant emissions. McAuliffe’s answer: “I have no say in this matter.” The pipelines would threaten the drinking water of farms, ranches and recreational properties all along the way. McAuliffe: “I have no power to act.”
The governor doubled down on this duck-and-cover approach in a stunning radio interview Wednesday on WTOP in Washington. The interview highlighted the lightning-rod Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline projects for fracked gas. In denying repeatedly his ability to protect citizens from the pipelines, McAuliffe also repeatedly ignored what legal experts say is his clear obligation under the Clean Water Act to do just that.
What McAuliffe did admit on the radio is that he has met “dozens and dozens” of times with Dominion Power – the company that wants to build the ACP and charge ratepayers $5 billion for it. The governor was very proud of this, repeating that he had held “meeting after meeting” with the company to discuss the best way to build the ACP. But to this day, McAuliffe has not formally met with any groups or individuals opposed to the pipelines. This includes a group of Virginia citizens, ranging in age from 21-77, who wrote him two weeks ago requesting a meeting to discuss the pipelines’ negative impacts on their rural, urban, native American and African American communities.
If, as the governor claims, he has no influence over the construction of these pipelines, then why has Dominion Power met with him “dozens and dozens” of times? The answer is obvious. Under both state and federal law, McAuliffe does have a say. It’s just that Dominion Power and other energy companies don’t want him to act. They want both pipelines to flow unimpeded from the fracking wells of West Virginia, into Virginia and off to North Carolina – virtually no matter what the consequences for innocent communities and ecosystems along the way.
Here’s the truth: the federal Clean Water Act, passed in the 1970s, delegates power to state governors and state agencies – and, by extension, the citizens – to protect local communities and watersheds from the harmful intrusion of polluters. Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, an executive agency that’s under the full control of McAuliffe, must issue water permits to the pipeline companies before construction can begin. These permits must certify that the projects meet federal and state clean water laws.
The governor knows this. He also knows that, with Dominion’s blessing, the DEQ could try to issue a so-called “blanket” approval of the pipelines in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This would cut local citizens out of the process and have the effect of rubber-stamping the pipelines without ever looking at how they impact Virginia’s water resources.
McAuliffe can order the DEQ, tomorrow, to completely reject this regulatory cop-out approach. He can order the agency instead to carefully review the impacts to water resources from each pipeline. The agency can deny the water permits – as necessary – if a full and independent review finds that the projects do not meet the standards of the Clean Water Act. The McAuliffe administration doesn’t need the state’s General Assembly to help him do this — or the courts or the U.S. Congress. Earlier this year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo used this same authority under the Clean Water Act to deny certification of the high-polluting Constitution Pipeline proposed for that state.
The truth is this: the proposed fracked-gas pipelines in Virginia are McAuliffe’s pipelines. And his current strategy of abdicating his responsibility by pretending powerlessness is backfiring. A recent poll conducted by the nationally respected firm The Cromer Group (and commissioned by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network), shows that only 28 percent of Virginia voters actually approve of the governor’s support of the pipelines.
No wonder dirty-energy opponents are staging a three-day “picket line” starting today outside McAuliffe’s Richmond offices. For obvious reasons, it’s being called the “Yes you can, Governor!” lunchtime march. Maybe McAuliffe, for a change, could duck out of his latest meeting with Dominion and come outside to actually listen to Virginia moms and dads and kids who want clean water.