Mountain Valley Pipeline has agreed to pay $8,000 of the $86,000 demanded by Virginia regulators for the latest environmental violations caused by building the hotly disputed natural gas pipeline.
Whether it owes any more—and how much more—is still under negotiation.
In a July 8 letter to Mountain Valley’s lawyer, the Department of Environmental Quality said the latest violations occurred between Sept. 19, 2019, and March 10, 2020. That time period covers problems with erosion and sedimentation that happened after Mountain Valley had agreed to pay $2.15 million for earlier infractions during construction of the pipeline, which began in the winter of 2018.
Mountain Valley disputed most of the latest claims but agreed to pay $8,000 in fines for the ones it had no quarrel with.
DEQ’s enforcement director, Tiffany Severs, then wrote in her July 8 letter to the company’s deputy general counsel, Todd Normane, that the agency had reviewed its findings and was willing to reduce the fine.
“Based on DEQ’s evaluation of the disputed items and taking into consideration the amount paid to date, the remaining amount MVP is liable for is $58,500, plus interest,” Severs wrote.
Mountain Valley is working with DEQ to learn more about the unresolved allegations, company spokeswoman Natalie Cox said.
“As has always been the case, the most effective and permanent remedy for preventing erosion and sediment control issues is to complete installation of the pipeline and fully revegetate and restore the pipeline right-of-way,” Cox wrote in an email.
DEQ and Mountain Valley are scheduled to discuss the remaining violations on July 27, agency spokeswoman Ann Regn said.
Since work began on the 303-mile pipeline that will pass through the New River and Roanoke valleys, digging trenches to bury the 42-inch diameter pipe along steep mountainsides has caused repeated problems with erosion, washing harmful sediment onto nearby properties and into streams and rivers.
It has also unleashed a flood of complaints from landowners, environmental groups and other opponents of what will be the largest natural gas pipeline ever built in Virginia.
The co-chair of POWHR, the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights coalition that is fighting the pipeline, noted that the latest violations occurred during a lull in construction, when work was largely limited to controlling erosion on dormant work sites.
“Their inability to manage that, and their attempts to negotiate away their responsibility or blame landowners where they failed to clean up, is offensive,” Russell Chisholm said.
“MVP can either abide by Virginia’s environmental laws or they cannot and should not be working in the Commonwealth,” Chisholm said in a statement from POWHR. “The ever-increasing number of violations is evidence enough that they cannot.”
If the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission lifts a stop-work order, which came in October after multiple legal challenges, Mountain Valley should not be allowed to resume construction until after the dispute over fines is resolved, co-chair Roberta Bondurant added.
“MVP should be prohibited from doing more damage to rural mountain communities without paying for their prior misdeeds,” Bondurant said.
The ongoing discussions between the joint venture of five energy companies building the pipeline and environmental regulators stems from a consent decree reached in December 2019. The decree allowed Mountain Valley to pay $2.15 million to settle a lawsuit that accused it of violating regulations more than 300 times.
A key part of the agreement was a provision that allowed for enhanced monitoring and tougher penalties should there be violations after Sept. 18, 2019.
Mountain Valley agreed to pay for a team of inspectors who will join FERC, DEQ and its third-party firm in monitoring pipeline construction.
But there isn’t a lot to inspect at the moment.
Construction was halted last fall, after a coalition of environmental groups filed a legal challenge of a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which found in 2017 that construction would not adversely jeopardize endangered species that live along the pipeline’s path.
The Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to review its biological opinion, which Mountain Valley needs before FERC will consider lifting the stop-work order. A decision could come this month.
If it’s allowed to resume work, Mountain Valley would still need two other sets of suspended permits—to cross streams and wetlands and to pass through the Jefferson National Forest—before it could finish the job.
Company officials say they expect to do that and have the pipeline in service by early next year.
Opponents have vowed more litigation if new permits are granted for a project that is already two years behind schedule.