The Mountain Valley Pipeline is facing another state-imposed fine for erosion and sedimentation problems.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has proposed a consent order that would require Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC to pay a $303,706 fine for violating permits by failing to control erosion and sediment-laden water.
The state also fined Mountain Valley Pipeline $266,000 in 2019 for similar erosion and water contamination issues, and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality fined Mountain Valley $2.15 million that same year for water quality violations.
The DEP is taking written comments on the order through March 13, and the agency’s acting communications director, Terry Fletcher, declined further comment.
Concern about environmental effects from erosion caused by the unfinished 303-mile pipeline project that travels from Northwestern West Virginia to Southern Virginia has been a constant among landowners and conservationists throughout its protracted construction .
A volunteer group that has been monitoring and reporting environmental issues related to the pipeline’s construction filed evidence with federal regulators over the past two weeks alleging that the pipeline is causing erosion along the right-of-way in Braxton, Lewis and Nicholas counties, submitting aerial photos showing bare, unvegetated areas and landslips along the pipeline route.
The consent order covers permit violations that took place from February 2019 to September 2020, although most of them were documented in 2019. Natalie Cox, spokeswoman of pipeline developer Equitrans Midstream Corp., said that was the result of enhanced erosion and sedimentation controls.
Cox argued that the best tool for environmental protection is project completion, saying that Mountain Valley cannot permanently restore the soil and vegetation in these areas until construction is complete.
“With total project work roughly 92% complete, we believe there is common ground for all stakeholders to agree that, at this juncture, the best path forward for environmental protection, as well as affected landowners, is for MVP to complete construction, fully restore the remainder of the right-of-way, and place the natural gas pipeline in service,” Cox wrote in an email.
But the project’s opponents don’t think the DEP has gone far enough in penalizing Mountain Valley for the environmental damage the project has caused in West Virginia, the site of two thirds of the pipeline.
“This fine is supposed to be some kind of deterrent to MVP to halt the harm they cause every single day they are allowed to pillage our state,” Monroe County landowner Maury Johnson wrote in an email.
Johnson said he has sent more than 200 complaints to the DEP and walked dozens of miles along the pipeline right-of-way, driving several hundred more documenting the damage the project has done to West Virginia’s landscape.
“Some of those have ended in a notice of violation; too many of them have not,” Johnson wrote. “This fine means nothing to the people behind the MVP.”
Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, has advocated for greater penalties for pipelines that violate West Virginia environmental regulations. She noted that Virginia has fined Mountain Valley more than three times as often as West Virginia, despite two thirds of the pipeline being located in the Mountain State.
Rosser said she thinks penalties need to be higher, to avoid a “culture of noncompliance.”
“The troubling thing is that we’re just seeing repeated bad behavior, and it goes to our concern that these fines just aren’t sizable enough to be an effective deterrent,” Rosser said.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a multibillion-dollar project that has ballooned by billions of dollars. Repeated legal and regulatory challenges have set the project back and helped raise its price tag to at least $5.8 billion, over 50% more than its original cost estimate.
Equitrans originally estimated that the pipeline would be completed by the end of 2018.
One of the roadblocks that Mountain Valley Pipeline, a joint venture of five companies, is trying to get around is a lack of permits for water crossings. Mountain Valley said in a filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week that it would request individual water crossing permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, rather than wait for litigation to be resolved over a corps-issued blanket water crossing permit that a federal appellate court stayed in November.
But Mountain Valley still will need water quality certification from West Virginia and Virginia environmental regulators.
“[The DEP] must be factoring in the impacts they’ve seen to date from MVP,” Rosser said.