State sues over pipeline, alleging over 300 environmental violations
The company building a natural gas pipeline through Southwest Virginia violated environmental regulations more than 300 times, a lawsuit filed Friday by Virginia’s top lawyer alleges.
Mountain Valley Pipeline is facing “the maximum allowable civil penalties and a court order to force MVP to comply with environmental laws and regulations,” according to a statement from Attorney General Mark Herring.
Since work began earlier this year, inspections have found that crews failed to prevent muddy water from flowing off pipeline construction easements, often leaving harmful sediment in nearby streams and properties.
Covering a span of seven months and nearly 100 miles of the pipeline’s route through five counties, the lawsuit is one of the most comprehensive summaries to date of the environmental toll taken by running a 42-inch diameter pipeline across rugged slopes and through pure mountain streams.
Herring’s office filed the case on behalf of Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor and the State Water Control Board.
“In this case, we determined referral to the Office of the Attorney General was prudent in order to seek faster resolution to these violations,” Paylor said in a written statement.
A Mountain Valley spokeswoman said Friday that “unusually wet conditions and periods of record rainfall” since construction began have posed unexpected challenges along the pipeline’s 303-mile path from northern West Virginia to Pittsylvania County.
Natalie Cox wrote in an email that Mountain Valley “takes its environmental stewardship responsibilities very seriously and appreciates the guidance and oversight by the VDEQ. MVP will continue to comply with the relevant laws and regulations related to the safe and responsible construction of this important infrastructure project in order to meet public demand for natural gas.”
Separately on Friday, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline voluntarily stopped work on the project in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed implementation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Biological Opinion and Incidental Take Statement, pending review by the court.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service scrambled to reissue this permit and its haste is evident in its analysis,” said attorney Patrick Hunter of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Aaron Ruby of Dominion Energy said in a statement: “We respectfully but strongly disagree with the court’s decision. We believe this stay is not only unwarranted, but overly broad.” Ruby said the issues in the case involve four species and about 100 miles in West Virginia and Virginia, not all 600 miles in the project. Dominion said it will file a motion with the court asking for a clarification on the scope of the stay.
Virginia’s suit against the Mountain Valley Pipeline, filed in Henrico County Circuit Court, does not state an exact monetary amount that the state is seeking.
In July, the DEQ issued a notice of violation to Mountain Valley, informing the company that its measures to control erosion and sediment had failed at multiple locations in the counties of Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin.
The matter was later referred to the attorney general’s office, which prepared a 27-page lawsuit that makes more sweeping allegations.
A citizen watchdog group, Mountain Valley Watch, has been submitting reports of possible violations to the DEQ since early spring. And even as the state sanctions piled up, construction continued at a fast clip — except for court-ordered suspensions in the Jefferson National Forest and for spots where the pipeline will cross streams and wetlands.
Pipeline opponents have called on the DEQ to issue a stop-work order, which the agency is allowed by state law to do if there is a “substantial adverse impact” to water quality or if such an impact is eminent.
The DEQ has taken no such action and did not ask for a courtordered suspension in Friday’s lawsuit.
Even so, the financial cost to Mountain Valley could be substantial. Penalties in the case could be as high as $32,500 per day for each violation, according to the lawsuit. The attorney general’s office has not calculated the maximum fine. “That will be determined in court,” spokeswoman Charlotte Gomer said.
Mountain Valley has already agreed to pay the state $27.5 million to compensate for the environmental damage that was expected even before the first tree was felled, money that will be spent on conservation projects outside the pipeline’s reach.
The legal action is based on dozens of inspections conducted by DEQ officials and employees of MBP, a private company hired by the state to assist in monitoring construction of what is the largest natural gas pipeline ever proposed for Southwest Virginia.
In October, a permit from the Army Corps covering about 500 stream and wetland crossings in Virginia was suspended after a successful legal challenge filed by the Sierra Club and other conservation groups that raised concerns about water pollution.
Mountain Valley Pipeline, building a gas line in Southwest Virginia, said it “takes its environmental stewardship responsibilities very seriously.”