A stop-work order on a 2-mile section of the Mountain Valley Pipeline doesn’t stop the widespread environmental problems along the remaining 301 miles of the project, opponents said Tuesday.
Less than a week after the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality ordered work to cease on a section of the pipeline in eastern Montgomery County, a citizens group that is monitoring construction called yet again for a full stop-work order.
“There are too many unresolved questions to allow this project to continue with impunity,” said Russell Chisholm, lead coordinator for the Mountain Valley Watch and co-chair of the Protect Our Water Heritage Rights coalition.
Chisholm and others who spoke at a news conference asked why DEQ ordered Mountain Valley to stop work last Thursday because of violations of erosion and sediment control measures — problems that have occurred repeatedly since work began last year.
The most recent lapses — which included a work site near U.S. 11/460 with nothing to curb runoff — marked the first time DEQ inspectors found an imminent and substantial risk to water quality, the standard set by a state law that allowed them to stop work on the natural gas pipeline until the problems are corrected.
Details of the violation remained unclear Tuesday. A report from an Aug. 1 inspection that led to the stop-work order the next day was not released by DEQ.
Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox said a construction crew with the joint venture reported an “an incident regarding erosion and sediment control measures” to DEQ that led to the inspection and stop-work order.
“MVP changed the sequence of its work to address a potentially escalating environmental issue in another location on its right-of-way,” Cox wrote in an email. “While the resequencing was well-intended, there were misjudgments about the overall environmental risk in the area that contributed to the incident, and for this there is no excuse.”
Cox’s email did not explain what the “escalating environmental issue” was, or what the sequential change in work involved.
The stop-work order states that Mountain Valley failed to construct and maintain environmental protections, “and/or the erosion and sediment control measures that have been installed are not functioning effectively.”
It was the first time DEQ has formally ceased work on the pipeline, and the first stop-work order issued by the agency for any construction project since 2001.
Height Capital Markets, an investment banking firm that has been following the project, said in a report this week that it expected Mountain Valley to make corrections and DEQ to then lift its stop-work order within a month or two.
The company will work closely with DEQ to resolve the problems, Cox said. “In this case, the work failed to meet our expectations, and more importantly, the expectations of our regulatory agencies and our other stakeholders,” she said.
No additional delays in the project are expected because of the stop-work order, according to the Height report.
In a statement last week, DEQ Director David Paylor said the agency was “appalled that construction priorities and deadline pressures would ever rise above the proper and appropriate use of erosion control measures.”
Cox did not respond to Paylor’s comments.
But the CEO of EQM Midstream Partners, the lead company in the joint venture, said recently that continuing to build the pipeline was the best way to guard against more regulatory delays and cost increases.
“I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that this is a 50- to 80-year investment that’s going to be incredibly valuable to this company,” Thomas Karam said in an April teleconference to discuss first quarter results with financial analysts. “With each month that we construct it, we take more budget risks and timing risks off the table.”
Legal challenges from environmental groups last year led to the loss of two sets of key federal permits: one for the pipeline to pass through the Jefferson National Forest and the other for it to cross more than 1,000 streams and wetlands.
However, Karam said Mountain Valley expected to have the permits restored in time to complete the $5 billion project next year.
“Once you get past the headlines, we remain exceedingly confident and bullish about MVP,” he said.
Opponents who spoke at Tuesday’s news conference said the “breakneck pace of construction” has picked up in recent weeks, with Mountain Valley crews working through heavy rainfalls and for long hours that include 7:30 a.m. starts, even on Sundays.
They also pointed to high levels of turbidity that made the Roanoke River run a dark shade of brown on two occasions in July in Montgomery and Roanoke counties, not far from the pipeline construction site.
“Anybody who lives on this river knows that it doesn’t look like this,” local environmental advocate Diana Christopulos said.
DEQ spokeswomen Ann Regn confirmed that gauges showed turbidity levels were higher than those observed in the past. But “we can't provide definitive conclusions about the sources of the elevated turbidity at this time,” she said last week.
Some have raised concerns that sediment released from pipeline construction could reach streams and rivers in amounts high enough to contaminate drinking water supplies in the nearby Spring Hollow Reservior.
The Western Virginia Water Authority draws water from the Roanoke River to fill the reservoir on an as-needed basis to serve the Roanoke Valley.
Sarah Baumgardner, a spokeswoman for the authority, said it limited its pumping from the river during heavy rains for four days in July, which is normal procedure.
The 3.2 billon gallon reservoir was nearly full, Baumgarder said in a July 23 email. “We can pump turbid water from the river to the reservoir if necessary, but we have the luxury of being more selective when the reservoir is nearly full,” she said.
The city of Salem, which takes its water from a nearby spot on the river, also noticed muddy water in July. But it encountered no problems in drawing in the water it needed for treatment, spokesman Mike Stevens said.
As work on the pipeline has ramped up this summer, drawing more than 2,000 construction workers to Southwest Virginia, Mountain Valley has found a way across some of the streams in its path.
In requests made to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the company has obtained permission to cross about 35 streams and wetlands in Virginia and West Virginia by boring under them, as opposed to using what’s called an open-cut dry method.
Permits for the open-cut process, which entails damning a waterway temporarily and digging a trench along the exposed bottom to bury the 42-inch diameter pipe, was suspended last year, after a federal appeals court threw out an approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for environmental reasons.
Conventional boring is not covered by the so-called Nationwide Permit 12, according to FERC.
The method is not possible for all the stream and wetland crossings, Cox said. “The type of terrain and the actual construction workspace, among other things, are evaluated in order to determine which types of crossings can be used,” she wrote in an email.
Some environmental groups have asked FERC not to allow conventional boring, calling it an “end run” around the Nationwide Permit that bypasses full scrutiny.
Pipeline expert Rick Kuprewicz said that boring, which is generally more expensive and less environmentally damaging than the open-cut method, can have some advantages for companies when their first choice of stream crossings is blocked.
“This is a multimillion dollar, 42-inch diameter pipeline project,” Kuprewicz said of Mountain Valley.
“The time value of money takes a life of its own, so there’s a lot of pressure to get these projects operational as soon as possible."