Saying Virginia’s environmental regulators have “seemingly backtracked” on earlier statements, Virginia House Minority Leader David J. Toscano has asked state officials to recommit to a more rigorous review process for the pending Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Toscano, a Charlottesville Democrat facing an anti-pipeline primary challenger, voiced his disapproval Thursday in a letter to Department of Environmental Quality Director David K. Paylor.
“I write to express my concern about reports that the agency has seemingly backtracked on its earlier decision to require certifications for each individual segment of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) that crosses or affects a Virginia waterway, and to urge your reconsideration,” Toscano wrote. “Relying instead on a so-called ‘blanket permit’ issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is an unnecessary and unwise delegation of authority to the federal government to protect Virginia streams and rivers in the face of a major project that will be disruptive and potentially damaging to our environment.”
Toscano’s letter is the latest example of how the DEQ’s misstatements have exacerbated the election-year politics surrounding the pipeline, an issue that’s particularly sensitive in the Charlottesville region due to the pipeline’s route through nearby Nelson County.
Toscano’s challenger, University of Virginia political researcher Ross Mittiga, is running an anti-corporate campaign focusing largely on opposing the pipeline and rejecting the influence of Dominion Energy, the politically powerful utility behind the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
In April, the DEQ announced it would require individual water-quality certifications for both the Atlantic Cost and Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline projects. At the time, DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden specified that the agency would require separate certifications for each individual pipeline segment that crossed or affected streams or wetlands. Under questioning from the media and pipeline opponents, the DEQ acknowledged this week that the earlier information was inaccurate, saying the state would rely on a federal permit for the hundreds of spots where the pipelines would cross water. The state’s review will focus instead on “upland areas,” such as ridges and hilltops, that are not covered by the federal review process.
The misinformation about the scope of the state reviews came as Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, McAuliffe’s would-be successor, face anti-pipeline pressure from environmental activists who believe state leaders can take a more assertive role even though the final pipeline decisions are made at the federal level. McAuliffe and the state’s business community have backed the pipeline, saying it will help the economy and create jobs.
Northam, running in a tight gubernatorial primary against former congressman and pipeline opponent Tom Perriello, has repeatedly touted a letter he sent to DEQ officials in mid-February asking for individual reviews and a “thorough evaluation” of the pipelines’ water impacts. Northam has said his letter contributed to the DEQ’s earlier decision, but has not pushed back against the agency’s reversal. In a statement Wednesday, Northam’s campaign said he maintains his position “that these projects must be held to the highest environmental standards.”
The response didn’t satisfy some pipeline opponents.
“The Lt. Governor must reject DEQ’s improper approach and its failure to be straight with the public,” the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition said in a statement Thursday. “There is no excuse for leaving false information in the public record for 7 weeks without correcting it — and DEQ would still not have made that correction unless officials had been explicitly asked about the department’s intentions. Will Mr. Northam demand transparent processes, as he has repeatedly stated, or not?”
On Friday, Northam spokesman David Turner said the DEQ’s clarified process “goes beyond the scope” of the federal process and allows the state to “intervene with water certification at specific sites.”
“This increase in standards on top or beyond the national blanket is what Ralph called for, and in order for either of these projects to move forward, these certifications will have to be approved or denied by the citizen members of our State Water Control Board,” Turner said.
Asked about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline at a candidate forum Thursday night in Richmond, Perriello called the DEQ’s newly stated position “real disturbing news.”
“This just needs to be a clear issue. Virginians deserve a full, independent review of the environmental effects of these pipelines,” Perriello said. “And I think anything less is not what Virginia citizens want.”
In an interview, Mittiga, a likely Perriello supporter, called Toscano’s letter “fiercely mild” and noted Toscano, a Northam backer, did not say he’s flatly opposed to the pipeline.
“My sense is that it’s a cynical attempt to project an environmentalist image at a time that Toscano and Northam and the like are quickly realizing that that’s what voters are demanding and they’re on the wrong side of the issue,” Mittiga said. “But at the same time, they’re not willing to piss off their corporate donors.”