State wades back into pipeline permits in Virginia

Back Creek in western Virginia breached its banks recently, flooding construction markers set out by developers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (© Lew Freeman)

In a bold move, the Virginia State Water Control Board has voted to open a public comment period to review the adequacy of controversial federal water permits issued to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) projects. Both pipelines have garnered heavy opposition from people living along their path. Together, they would cross more than a thousand Virginia waterways to carry fracked gas from the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia to Virginia and, in the case of the ACP, on to North Carolina. The permits in question, known as Nationwide Permit 12, are issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They are general permits that provide blanket authorization for construction through waterways, including blasting, drilling, and trenching through rivers, streams, and wetlands in the pipeline’s path.

Nationwide Permit 12 is too general to ensure that these pipelines won’t do permanent damage to Virginia’s remarkable waterways like the Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers,” said Senior Attorney Greg Buppert. “The recent severe storm and flooding in Bath and Highland Counties demonstrates just how risky pipeline construction will be. The State Water Control Board seems to be taking this issue seriously.”

A severe thunderstorm that swept through much of the western part of Virginia recently highlighted just how risky pipeline construction through waterways could prove to be once construction gets underway. In Highland County, the Back Creek valley, which is bordered by steep mountainsides in the George Washington National Forest, was severely flooded and flag markers indicating the ACP’s path could be seen peeking up above floodwaters. Scenes like these were replicated in other locations along the pipeline’s route during the storm, providing important and timely examples of the risks of pipeline construction.

Virginia is at an important crossroads in its evaluation of these projects. As the State Water Control Board seeks more information about the potential for the ACP and MVP to cause harm to waterways in Virginia, two lawsuits are pending in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals challenging the validity of the Clean Water Act permits, known as Section 401 certifications, that the state issued for each project last December.

SELC, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, on behalf of a coalition of community and conservation groups, filed an opening brief last week in the legal challenge to the Virginia State Water Control Board’s approval of a water quality certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

SELC has three other cases related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline pending in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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