Before deciding whether to approve a $2.15 million settlement of a lawsuit alleging environmental damage caused by building the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a circuit court judge will consider public comments.
About 130 people had submitted input by midday Tuesday, according to Ann Regn, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The deadline for written comments is Wednesday.
DEQ and the State Water Control Board sued Mountain Valley last December, saying the company violated state regulations meant to limit erosion and sedimentation more than 300 times in building the largest natural gas pipeline ever to cross Southwest Virginia.
In October, Attorney General Mark Herring announced a settlement that provides a framework for court-ordered enforcement going forward, with the possibility that the financial penalty will exceed the $2.15 million agreement if additional violations occur.
Mountain Valley agreed to conditions — which include hiring independent monitors to make inspections beyond what had previously been required by the state — as part of a consent decree that will soon go to a judge in Henrico County Circuit Court.
Digging trenches to bury the 42-inch diameter steel pipe along steep mountain slopes has led to widespread runoff, washing harmful sediment into nearby streams and onto the property of adjacent landowners.
Meanwhile, separate lawsuits against federal agencies led to the suspension of two sets of permits for the pipeline last year, and a third approval was more recently pulled while an appeals court reviews yet another challenge, this one of the project’s impact on endangered species of fish and bats.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the lead agency overseeing construction of the $5.5 billion project, ordered new construction to cease Oct. 15 until the most recent lawsuit, filed by environmental groups against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, is resolved.
Since then, Mountain Valley and environmental advocates have continued to spar over pipeline work, which FERC ordered be limited to stabilization of work sites and erosion-control measures to prepare for a winter lull.
In a Nov. 5 letter to FERC, the Sierra Club wrote that Mountain Valley is continuing with active construction, causing “unprecedented levels of turbidity” in creeks and streams that are home to the Roanoke logperch, an endangered species.
At a news conference Tuesday, local pipeline opponents Freeda Cathcart and Tammy Belinsky pointed to similar problems in eastern Montgomery County, not far from where a tree-sit has blocked Mountain Valley from cutting a small patch of trees that are the last ones standing along the pipeline’s 303-mile path through the two Virginias.
Elly Benson, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club, asked FERC to take the additional step of suspending a certificate for the pipeline that it granted in October 2017, clearing the way for construction to begin early the following year.
“FERC is putting itself at grave risk by trusting the pipeline” to judge what kind of activities constitute a threat to endangered species, Benson wrote.
In a Nov. 18 reply letter, an attorney for Mountain Valley told FERC that the company is fully complying with its order to stop construction, and that the Sierra Club’s complaints are based on incorrect and outdated information.
While FERC has allowed some construction to continue in order to stabilize work sites, mostly in West Virginia, those areas are outside of the habitats of endangered species, assistant general counsel Matthew Eggerding wrote.
Mountain Valley expects to complete all construction work for the year “later this month,” the letter stated. “As such, it is unnecessary for the Commission to consider Sierra Club’s request to suspend Mountain Valley’s construction activities.”
FERC had not issued an order or public reply to the Sierra Club by Friday afternoon
Before work can resume next year, FERC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must complete a review of the service’s 2017 biological opinion, which found that pipeline construction would not seriously jeopardize endangered species. After that process is completed in January, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will take up the legal challenge.
Mountain Valley is also seeking to restore permits struck down last year by the 4th Circuit, one to allow the pipeline to pass through the Jefferson National Forest and the second for it to cross more than 1,000 streams and wetlands.
Assuming it gets all of the permits back, Mountain Valley says its plans to complete construction by late next year.