Virginia Water Board Can and Should Deny Pipeline Permits

Jockey Camp Creek, West Virginia

The Virginia State Water Control Board is responsible for administering the Virginia Water Control Law. When it comes to federally-permitted pipelines, the Water Board has authority to make what’s called a “certification” decision under the Clean Water Act. If a state denies certification, such a project cannot proceed. The Board also holds public hearings before making decisions.

Attorneys from five conservation organizations recently argued that the Water Board should deny a certification to both the Mountain Valley and the Atlantic Coast pipelines.

Under the law, the Water Board can only make a certification for the pipelines if it has “reasonable assurance” that the pipelines would not violate Virginia’s water quality standards.

That assurance does not exist.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is tasked with providing information and recommendations to the members of the Water Board regarding the impacts of a pipeline proposal to rivers, wetlands, streams, lakes, and other waterbodies in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

To date, DEQ’s analysis has excluded two critical water threats from these pipelines:

  1. Erosion and sediment pollution
  2. Stormwater management during the construction of the massive multi-billion dollar projects

Why does this matter?

Sediment—even without toxic substances attached it causes water pollution. Sediment is an enormous cause of impaired water quality in rivers and increases water treatment costs for cities and towns responsible for delivering drinking water to their residents. Sediment also reduces the viability of aquatic plants and animals, destroying their habitat. Erosion rates from construction sites are much greater than from almost any other land use.

This is why the City of Roanoke, Virginia has estimated that increased sediment in the Roanoke River from the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline could increase the city’s costs by at least $36 million per year. That number is based on sediment predictions from the pipeline’s owners—not by a third party independent expert, so the actual number could well be greater. The City is concerned that sediment can contain industrial pollutants like PCBs and severely impact a federally endangered species, the Roanoke logperch.

Stormwater management is critical to protect clean water from contamination. During a rainstorm or snowstorm, flowing water known as stormwater causes excessive soil erosion and picks up pollutants that can flow into a river, stream, lake or wetland. Large-scale ground disturbing activities, like pipeline construction, can increase runoff and therefore water pollution.

The proposed Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines would cross headwater streams, rivers and wetlands about 1,400 times in Virginia. They are considered among the greatest threats to Virginia waters in generations.

Fortunately, as the legal analysis points out, the Virginia Water Board can deny 401 certification for the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines to protect water quality. As the lawyers point out: "The Clean Water Act defines a robust role for state decision-makers to ensure that federally-permitted projects like these proposed pipelines do not cause violations of state water quality standards." The courts have made clear that states have the power to block pipelines.

The legal analysis is long, so I’ll just summarize the bottom line here:

  1. VA DEQ has not conducted the analysis needed to determine whether either of these two pipelines would violate Virginia water quality standards or the federal Clean Water Act.
  2. VA DEQ has excluded from their consideration critical information needed to determine whether water quality standards will be violated.

Without reasonable assurance that the projects will not violate water quality standards, the Virginia Water Board must deny the certifications for these pipelines.

Virginia residents can take action and send their concerns about the pipelines to the Water Control Board on the NRDC website.

About the Authors

Amy Mall

Senior Policy Analyst, Land & Wildlife program
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Not enough attention is being paid to two wholly unnecessary, risky and costly proposed natural gas pipelines that could impact the environment and quality of life in Virginia, North Carolina, and West Virginia for decades to come. But there’s plenty of time to stop them from being constructed, and opportunities for citizens to engage in protecting their future.

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The bill intends to make it easier for natural gas pipelines to get approved. It’s a bad bill, and a bad idea.

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