Northam Must Act to Protect Clean Water from Pipelines

A new report issued today, prepared by experts in water quality on behalf of NRDC, outlines the severe threats to clean water posed by construction and operation of fracked gas pipelines.

The report discusses the significant threats to waterbodies crossed by the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia. It provides technical details and maps illustrating the potential harms to drinking water supplies for cities like Norfolk and Roanoke, native trout, communities of color like Emporia and Franklin, wetlands like the Great Dismal Swamp, streams that are already polluted, and the Chesapeake Bay.

My last blog post detailed how North Carolina had approved Clean Water Act certification for its portion of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), despite it being the wrong decision for North Carolina waters, air, consumers, and communities.

But the fates of ACP and the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) are not yet signed in stone. Virginia still has several important decisions to make about the risks to its waters from these dirty and dangerous pipelines.

Now is the time for Virginia to take a fresh look at this issue. As of last month, Virginia has a new Governor, Ralph Northam. When he was Lt. Governor, he pledged to look at the scientific evidence and use a transparent process to ensure that Virginia’s environment would be fully protected from any pipelines. He also called for site-specific permitting for every water crossing of these pipelines, instead of blanket permits.

Unfortunately, the previous Governor agreed to let the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the Trump Administration use blanket permits to approve pipeline construction activities that threaten Virginia rivers, drinking water reservoirs, trout streams, and wetlands. The Army Corps of Engineers approved the pipelines despite concerns that Virginia water quality standards could be violated.

A recent news report revealed that the previous administration under Governor Terry McAuliffe signed three private memoranda with the owners of the pipelines, whereby they would pay tens of millions of dollars for potential damages from the pipeline. These agreements foreshadow the extensive damage that these pipelines can inflict on Virginia’s environment and historical sites, and raise questions about the lack of public transparency.

Governor Northam now has a chance to correct the flawed decisions of the previous administration. His administration already took one step in announcing an extra layer of review for the MVP that had previously been established only for ACP. But this is not enough.

The report released today explains why Virginia needs a fresh look. It describes the potential threats the pipelines pose to waterbodies that they would cross hundreds of times in Virginia (because rivers and streams aren’t straight, but pipelines more or less are). Threatened resources include:

Drinking water areas: The MVP would cross the Source Water Assessment Areas for the Western Virginia Water Authority, the City of Roanoke, and the Town of Rocky Mount, and the ACP would cross the Source Water Assessment Areas for the cities of Staunton, Norfolk, and Emporia.

Native trout streams: An analysis by Trout Unlimited found 150 water crossings of concern for brook trout in Virginia. Almost half—73 of them—were considered to be of “highest concern.”

Communities of color: The City of Emporia is made up of approximately 70% people of color, with 23% of people living in poverty, yet the ACP would cross the Meherrin River, which provides the water for Emporia’s reservoir. The ACP would also travel through a census tract near Franklin, Virginia that has a high percentage of minority residents (approximately 73%), with 16.7% of people living in poverty, and reach approximately 2.5 miles from the city's nearest source water well.

The Chesapeake Bay: The ACP would entail 864 stream crossings in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which could result in upwards of 19 million additional pounds of annual sediment production that would then be required to be offset by additional sediment reduction practices elsewhere within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 

Wetlands: The ACP will also be constructed in the immediate vicinity of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, with 22 crossings in wetlands that are hydrologically connected to those in the National Wildlife Refuge. This would result in permanent conversation of wetlands to a different type of vegetation, altering and harming the wetland ecosystem.

These threats to water quality have not been adequately analyzed. The public has not been provided with reasonable assurance that Virginia’s waters are safe, even though it’s required by law. The threat is real: the construction company hired to build the Virginia portion of the MVP is linked to significant water contamination from its pipeline construction activities in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Companies who regularly pollute clean water should be banned, not welcomed.

Here’s what the Northam administration must do to protect Virginia’s waters from dangerous pipeline construction:

  1. Conduct a review of the individual water crossings so the public has full information on the true potential impacts to water quality that these pipelines pose for Virginia. And when doing so, it must apply the standards of transparency, science, and environmental protection, including meaningful opportunity for public review and comment. That review should identify the crossings that require further in-depth analysis to determine if they can be protected according to Virginia’s water quality laws.
  1. Engage in transparent and science-based review of the erosion and sediment control plans, stormwater management plans, annual standards and specifications, and supplemental karst evaluation plans for each pipeline. There should be public comment periods and public hearings.

In doing these things, Governor Northam would put the interests of all Virginians first, not the profits of dirty energy companies. He should not let the Trump administration have the final word on the fate of Virginia’s waters. And, ultimately, we think that thorough analysis will conclude that Virginia should not allow these two risky, costly and unneeded pipelines to be built in the state. If you live in Virginia, you can write to Governor Northam and ask him to protect Virginia's waters and stop the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines here.