Virginia Groundwater Needs Protection From Pipelines

In 2016, the Virginia Office of Environmental Health and Safety recommended a thorough 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. Water found beneath the surface is known as groundwater, or aquifers, and such a survey is essential to protect the aquifers that feed these wells and springs, and the people who depend on them for drinking, bathing, cooking, and farming.

This hasn't happened. Governor Northam can and should change that, and make sure the threats to groundwater from the proposed Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines are carefully examined.

The Army Corps of Engineers conducted a Clean Water Act permit review, but that doesn't consider potential harm to groundwater. They only looked at surface waters, like streams and rivers.

The state of Virginia issued water quality certifications for upland activities associated with MVP and ACP. While the state required a survey of drinking water wells and springs within 1,000 feet of the pipelines, it only did so for “areas known to have karst topography.” This requirement only applies to a small portion of the pipeline routes in Virginia: about 10 percent of the ACP route and 31 percent of the MVP route.

 Anywhere outside of karst terrain, for the vast majority of the pipeline routes in Virginia, the FERC certificates approving these pipelines only require identification of private water wells and springs within 150 feet of the pipeline workspace.

This places the sources of drinking water for hundreds of families across Virginia at risk. For example, the Four Corners Farm in Rocky Mount is a multi-generational farm that raises pigs, chickens, turkey and cattle. The farm has a water well approximately 800 feet from the proposed MVP route that would not be surveyed or tested.

Drilling an underground tunnel for a pipeline is the same process as drilling for an oil or gas well. Horizontal directional drilling (HDD) at pipeline water crossings involves drilling under a river or stream, and can come dangerously close to underground sources of drinking water. As one expert biogeochemist recently stated: “The horizontal drilling for the pipeline has the potential to connect previously discrete underground waterways in the same way that horizontal drilling does when combined with fracking for natural gas.”

Pipeline horizontal directional drilling (HDD)

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

When it comes to drilling oil and gas wells, Virginia requires a groundwater monitoring program that consists of baseline groundwater sampling and monitoring within a quarter-mile radius of a planned well.

Families who live near pipelines should get the same protections as families who live near oil or gas wells.

The threat is real.

Last year in Pennsylvania, construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline led to contamination of the underground drinking water source for at least 15 families. It's reported that the construction company involved in the Pennsylvania water contamination has been hired to build the MVP.

Drinking water in Pennsylvania after the local aquifer was punctured by drilling for the planned Mariner East 2 pipeline
Drinking water in Pennsylvania after the local aquifer was punctured by drilling for the planned Mariner East 2 pipeline

Jon Hurdle, StateImpact Pennsylvania

In its 2017 analysis of the impacts of ACP construction on one species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that pipeline activities “are expected to disrupt the subsurface water flow.” The FWS found that this activity could have impacts up to a half-mile from the construction site.

Thousands of Virginians who live along these pipeline routes rely on groundwater for their drinking water. Last year, when he was a candidate for governor, Ralph Northam told the state Department of Environmental Quality that these two pipelines "should be held to the highest environmental standards" and that they "must undergo a thorough evaluation of their impacts on our natural resources." He stated that "DEQ has an important role to play in safeguarding Virginia's water resources."

Now that he is governor, Northam can and must correct the flawed decisions of the previous administration and fulfill his promises. Under his leadership, it's critical that the Department of Environmental Quality and the State Water Control Board conduct a thorough and science-based review of the potential impacts on all groundwater at least 1000 feet from the pipeline, as recommended by the Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

Only then can they come to an honest assessment of whether Virginia’s aquifers can be protected according to the state’s water quality standards. All of Virginia’s waters must stay clean and safe. Virginians can take action and write to the governor on the NRDC website at this link.

About the Authors

Amy Mall

Senior Advocate, Dirty Energy, Lands Division, Nature Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.