The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline projects, proposed to cross hundreds of streams and wetland areas across Virginia, will be required to submit detailed information to state regulators on how they will comply with state erosion control and sediment runoff regulations to protect water quality.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality announced Thursday that it would require water quality certifications under Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act for each segment of both projects that crosses or potentially affects water bodies.
The decision will require extensive review of hundreds of affected waterways, potentially delaying the construction of the two proposed multibillion-dollar projects.
“These certifications will ensure that Virginia water quality standards are maintained in all areas affected by the projects,” the DEQ said in a statement. “The public will have an opportunity to review and comment on these certifications and the conditions required to protect water quality.”
The department had been weighing whether to permit the crossings solely under the “blanket” rules in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nationwide Permit 12 process, which pipeline opponents have criticized as too limited and general to protect Virginia waterways.
“We could have done that but that would have been less involved on each piece of the pipeline,” DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said. “It really came about partially from the public interest that’s been expressed and partly from DEQ’s own concerns that the pipeline construction be done properly to protect water quality. They’re big projects, both of them, and we wanted to make sure they can be done right.”
Dominion Resources, the lead developer of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, had planned to begin construction this fall on the $5.1 billion, 600-mile project, still pending federal approval, that will bring fracked gas from Marcellus Shale plays through the heart of Virginia to North Carolina. A Dominion spokesman, Aaron Ruby, said the company “remains fully on track to receive final approval and begin construction this fall.”
The pipeline developers have not yet applied for the certifications since it was unclear until Thursday whether DEQ would require them. The applications will involve voluminous information on individual pipeline segments, Hayden said.
The agency will solicit public comment and hold public hearings on the draft certifications, with the final decisions coming from the State Water Control Board.
“We’re very early in the process,” Hayden said. “It’s going to take some time.”
Ruby said the DEQ decision will “provide for public review of the protective measures we’ve adopted to preserve water quality” and added that the company is “ready to work cooperatively with DEQ on an efficient review and timely process.”
“Throughout this process, we’ve worked with state and federal agencies to ensure the project receives a thorough environmental review with robust public participation,” Ruby said.
Natalie A. Cox, spokeswoman for EQT Corp., the principal developer of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, issued a similar response, noting that West Virginia regulators issued a 401 permit for the project in late March after working closely with the company on plans to build the pipeline “with the least possible impact on streams and wetlands in West Virginia.”
“In similar fashion, we look forward to working with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to obtain and meet Virginia’s water quality certification requirements along with those of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ nationwide permit 12 for wetland and stream crossings,” Cox said.
Some opponents of the pipeline projects doubt that the pipeline developers can comply with state regulations related to stormwater management and erosion and sediment control.
“I don’t believe they can build this project without violating water quality standards and in compliance with the regulations,” said Rick Webb, a retired University of Virginia research scientist and program coordinator with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition.
For example, the state’s Erosion and Sediment Control Handbook requires that for utility corridors, a trench cannot be open for more than 500 feet at a time, meaning that the company would have to cover the earth as it goes unless it is granted a waiver, he said.
The pipelines will also require building access roads, which will also have implications for stormwater runoff and could boost erosion and choke streams with sediment that will be carried all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.
“We’re talking about huge excavations on steep mountainsides. Where will the spoil material go?” he said. “There’s just a long list of questions.”
Webb, whose research focused on the hydrology, chemistry and ecology of mountain streams, particularly wild trout streams, said the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will cross 451 streams in the mountainous areas of five counties in Virginia and five counties in West Virginia.
“It’s going to have a long-term impact on the integrity of the waters of the state,” Webb said.
DEQ’s decision came on the final day of public comment on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s draft environmental impact statement for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
The commission has received thousands of written comments, including expressions of support by legislative leaders in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, as well as opposition by environmental groups and some local governments that have challenged the draft statement as inadequate to protect environmental, historical and cultural resources .
The project cleared a significant hurdle Thursday when the U.S. Forest Service said it is satisfied with the feasibility of the company’s proposal to drill through the Blue Ridge Mountain to avoid the Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway between Augusta and Nelson counties.
Forest Service approval of the drilling plan, as well as a backup plan with a different technology, was among the conditions the commission staff included in the draft environmental impact statement issued at the end of last year.
The proposed use of horizontal directional drilling through the mountain near Reed’s Gap is critical to the project because it would allow the pipeline to pass 800 feet below the national scenic trail without requiring congressional approval.
Instead, the pipeline would cross beneath the trail and parkway on privately owned property, pending Forest Service approval of the project’s applications to pass through parts of the George Washington and Monongahela national forests.
The Forest Service hasn’t acted on the applications, but it dropped its earlier demand that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline complete drilling more than 4,600 feet through the mountain before the federal agency would permit construction in the national forests.
Clyde Thompson, Forest Service supervisor in the Monongahela in West Virginia, told federal regulators this week that the agency has concluded that the use of horizontal directional drilling and a contingency plan for a more conventional drilling method both would be “feasible at the proposed location.”
As a result, Thompson said the Forest Service’s earlier condition for drilling to be completed first “would no longer be necessary.”
Ruby, speaking for Dominion, called the decision “a very significant step forward for the project.”
“After thorough evaluation, the Forest Service has approved our plans for crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail,” Ruby said. “The agency underscored its confidence in our plans by deciding that it would allow us to begin construction in other areas of the national forests before the crossing is completed.”
Though the Forest Service has not acted on the special-use permit application that includes the mountain crossing, Ruby said, “these are two of the most important issues the Forest Service has been evaluating, so receiving a favorable decision is a very positive development for the project.”
Opposition to plans
The Forest Service’s decision disappointed opponents, who said the company still hasn’t provided adequate information to show that the drilling plans would work.
“It’s a pretty high-risk situation,” Webb said for the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, which questioned the plan’s viability in a report filed with regulators in February.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy also is not satisfied with the company’s plans for crossing the national scenic trail, which the organization said this week are based more on speed than minimizing the environmental effects.
“In fact, alternatives cannot be dismissed because they are cheaper and faster,” the conservancy said in comments filed with the federal commission.
The original pipeline route crossed the Blue Ridge about 8 miles north near Afton, but the company proposed an alternative route in 2014 to avoid the need for congressional approval to cross the Appalachian Trail. As a result, the pipeline would emerge from the mountain in Nelson directly across Beech Grove Road from the Wintergreen Resort entrance.
The resort and its homeowners association, as well as surrounding homeowners whose property would be crossed by the pipeline, have become vocal opponents of the project.
“We’re a little surprised by what they said,” said Jon Ansell, chairman of the Friends of Wintergreen, which has funded research that has raised concerns about the pipeline’s potential effect on steep mountain slopes.
“We still maintain a lot of soil and geological studies need to be done at a much more detailed level because there’s a high risk here,” said Ansell, whose property near the resort would be crossed by the pipeline.
The pipeline would emerge on the other side of the mountain in Augusta on property owned by Hazel F. Palmer. On April 19, the Virginia Supreme Court will hear her legal challenge of a state law allowing pipeline surveyors onto private property without landowner permission.
Separately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told federal regulators this week that the proposed pipeline route would interfere with a wildlife-restoration program run by the state with federal funds along the James River in Nelson.
Unless the company moves the route or mitigates the damage with other property of equal value, the project could jeopardize state eligibility for almost $14 million in federal grant funding.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries runs the James River Wildlife Management Area near Wingina, but two of the parcels within the protected area were purchased with federal funds from the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Program and proceeds from hunting and fishing licenses.
Ruby said Thursday that the pipeline company is working “very closely” with state and federal wildlife officials to reduce potential effects on the wildlife management area.