Virginia officials quietly weakened pipeline standards protecting water

The Cowpasture River runs through western Virginia and is renowned for the quality of its water and the ecosystem that it supports. (© Bill Sublette)

Amid all the hearings, protests, meetings, and headlines bringing attention to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, one aspect of the plans was kept under wraps. Until recently, Virginia officials had not made public their concession to roll back restrictions on construction in certain Virginia streams and rivers to help Dominion Energy and Atlantic Coast Pipeline developers speed up the project timeline. Now, thanks to information SELC obtained through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, we know that the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries granted modifications that weaken protections for Virginia water and wildlife. These weaker standards were established at Dominion’s request, without public input and without notice from Virginia.

Previously, Dominion had agreed to all of the restrictions as set out in the project’s environmental impact statement, but sought waivers because it could not meet its original construction schedule. 

The ‘time of year’ restrictions were put in place on a stream-specific basis as part of a public process to protect fish and other wildlife, including trout and endangered species, from pipeline construction during critical periods. They are essential not just to maintaining these species in the streams where they live, but also to Virginia trout fishermen and others using these streams, and the people who live near and value them,” said SELC Attorney Jonathan Gendzier. “Now that the Northam Administration is aware of this roll-back it should shoulder the responsibility of reestablishing these important protections for Virginia’s waters. The state should not alter already-established restrictions for Dominion’s convenience.”

Among the state waters that Dominion sought to weaken restrictions for is one of our state’s most important and pristine bodies of water, the Cowpasture River. Now that this issue has come to light, the administration of Governor Ralph Northam should ensure that these important restrictions are put back into place and that state agencies hold the line against any future pressure from Dominion to ease restrictions. 

The problems with these weakened restrictions include:

  • On the Jackson River, allowing in-stream construction during a portion of the overlapping restricted periods established to protect Rainbow, Brook, and Brown Trout spawning.
  • On the Cowpasture River in Bath County, home to trout and the federally endangered James Spinymussel, and an exceptionally clean stream, elimination of the first two months (mid-March to mid-May) of a restricted period protecting trout, and on six nearby Cowpasture River tributaries, allowing construction during portions of the restricted period protecting the James Spinymussel in the Cowpasture River.
  • Allowing construction during portions of the James Spinymussel restricted period on thirteen tributaries of Mill Creek in Bath County, known to be habitat for that species. 
  • Total elimination of time-of-year restrictions implemented to protect trout on a number of streams, including Morris Run in Highland County, and Dowell’s Draft and tributaries to Jennings Branch in Augusta County. Jennings Branch is known to support native Brook Trout.

The 600-mile long Atlantic Coast Pipeline is slated to cross 890 Virginia rivers and streams and hundreds acres of wetlands. The construction of the pipeline will also require carving through steep mountain slopes upland from many streams and waterways, putting them in danger of severe erosion and the resulting sedimentation of streams. The construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline has caused severe erosion and sedimentation problems in recent weeks, and similar problems are now cropping up on portions of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline construction under way in West Virginia.

SELC represents Cowpasture River Preservation Association, Friends of Buckingham, Highlanders for Responsible Development, Jackson River Preservation Association, Potomac Riverkeeper Network, Shenandoah Riverkeeper, Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, Shenandoah Valley Network, and Virginia Wilderness Committee in a legal challenge to Virginia’s 401 Certification for the pipeline.

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