Drinking Water Impacts Reported Near VA Pipeline Site

Despite reports that drinking water is being impacted, Virginia regulators are allowing pipeline construction to proceed.

I recently blogged on the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and State Water Control Board and their chance to exercise state oversight of the health of state waters, rather than cede permitting authority for water crossings of the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines to the Trump administration’s Army Corps of Engineers. Sadly, DEQ blew it, despite the fact that Virginia families are already reporting impacts to their drinking water from pipeline construction.

At an August 21 meeting, DEQ ignored reports that harms that are potentially already occurring. Instead, DEQ staff praised the Army Corps permits as adequate to protect Virginia waters. They glossed over comments submitted by the public, including those submitted by NRDC, that provided technical information regarding why the Army Corps permits are not adequate to ensure specific water crossing designs will not lead to water quality violations. As I outlined in another blog post, the existing engineering drawings do not even include site-specific plans, calculations, or documentation for every stream crossing, and fail to consider the unique and varying site conditions at each stream crossing or provide sufficient protections.

The Board voted on a motion to consider revocation or modification of the water permits, and only 3 of the 7 board members voted in favor, so the motion was defeated.

One failure of the Army Corps permits is that they do not protect groundwater. Groundwater is the source of drinking water for thousands of Virginians, and an expert report commissioned in May by NRDC detailed the threats to groundwater from pipeline construction.

This report highlights the community on Bent Mountain as being particularly vulnerable because its drinking water source is very shallow groundwater, close to the surface where pipeline construction activities are taking place.

In the case of MVP construction on Bent Mountain, digging for the pipe trench for the pipe is reported to have dug into the groundwater. And homeowners say that their water has changed with less pressure and visible dirt in their water.

Pamela English and her husband have lived in their home for more than 30 years. Mrs. English reported to the State Water Control Board that, in June, she found heavy gravel in her water that had clogged her washer outlet and her kitchen faucet. While they have noticed some finer sediment in their water in past years after heavy rain storms, Mrs. English said that these were bigger particles and not anything she has seen before.

Photos: Pamela English

The families on Bent Mountain, including many elderly, children and disabled individuals, have no source other than this one aquifer for their drinking water. Period. If their water is contaminated, they would have to pay for water for drinking, bathing, cooking, and livestock to be hauled by truck into their very rural community, as has happened to many families living near fracking sites.

In December 2016, staff at the Virginia Office of Environmental Health and Safety recommended a “complete sanitary survey” of all private water wells and springs, as well as septic systems, within 1,000 feet of a pipeline—at a minimum—before construction starts. They recommended this survey involve experts in geology, hydrogeology, epidemiology, and public health. They said the surveys are necessary to ensure that people and properties using groundwater or surface water for recreational use or human consumption are protected.

Yet that recommendation was completely ignored by DEQ and the Water Control Board for the majority of the pipeline routes. The 1000 feet buffer was required only in areas known to have a type of geology called karst--only 10 percent of the ACP route and 31 percent of the MVP route. The majority of the pipeline routes are in non-karst terrain, including Bent Mountain. In those areas, the Board required identification of private water wells and springs only within 150 feet of the pipeline workspace. Yet, as was made clear in the 2016 memo, impacts are very possible outside of 150 feet, and to ensure protection of groundwater resources in non-karst areas, testing of private water wells should have been expanded beyond the current 150-foot limit.

At the August Water Board meeting, when asked about the reports of groundwater contamination on Bent Mountain, DEQ staff stated that they were relying on the Virginia Department of Health (DOH) to investigate and conduct a sanitary survey--the survey that should have been done *before* pipeline construction started. No one from DOH spoke at the meeting.

Virginians who live along the pipeline routes have been let down by the DEQ and the State Water Control Board. A pre-construction survey alone wouldn’t have necessarily prevented contamination, but it would have established baseline conditions and provided more data that could have been incorporated into planning and permits to protect groundwater before construction began.

Now, groundwater and surface water across Virginia continue to be at risk from massive pipeline construction that is moving forward under permits that lack adequate protections for water quality or quantity. NRDC and our partners will continue to fight to stop these two dirty and destructive pipelines. DEQ can and should act to enforce Virginia water quality standards, and the Water Board can still take action to revise or revoke the permits for both ACP and MVP.

For now, citizen volunteers are working hard to fill regulatory and enforcement gaps left by state and federal agencies. Citizens are hard at work on the ground and in the air, practically round the clock, organizing and implementing their own monitoring efforts for both the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Anyone who has concerns about potential impacts to either surface or groundwater should report their observations to these groups, as well as to Virginia DEQ, U.S. EPA Region 3, and EPA’s national reporting site.

About the Authors

Amy Mall

Senior Advocate, Dirty Energy, Lands Division, Nature Program

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