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West Virginia files to revoke permits for a massive natural gas pipeline

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The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection filed a motion Wednesday to withdraw its certification of water protection for the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), a 300-mile long natural gas pipeline running from West Virginia to southern Virginia.

The move came just a day before the state was due to defend its approval in court against a lawsuit from Appalachian Mountain Advocates, representing a number of local and environmental groups. The groups challenged DEP’s process in granting a Clean Water Act permit, known as a 401 certification. (While the Clean Water Act is a federal statute, many states are authorized to enforce its regulations.)

“We’re pleased that DEP recognized its 401 certification was defective,” said senior attorney Derek Teaney. “But it’s a shame that it took a lawsuit to get DEP to do its job.”

Section 401 of the Clean Water Act requires the state to certify that a project will not violate water quality standards — including making sure that existing streams and rivers won’t be degraded. The Mountain Valley Pipeline route will cross over 600 local streams, Teaney told ThinkProgress. During construction, the streams would be dammed before the company digs a trench, buries the pipe, and allows the water to flow again. After the pipeline is complete, it will remain in a “maintained pipeline corridor,” which will increase runoff and sediment.

“Amazingly, neither DEP nor MVP bothered to calculate how much sediment the affected streams could tolerate or how much the pipeline would add to them,” Teaney said. “DEP never did that analysis the first time around. It didn’t even have the data necessary — baseline water quality data and a quantification of the amount of new pollution from the pipeline — to do that review.”

According to the motion, filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, West Virginia agrees that its review was insufficient. “During its review of the [court] filings… DEP determined that the information used to issue the Section 401 Certification needs to be further evaluated and possibly enhanced,” it says in the motion. The DEP specifically noted that “it needs to reconsider its antidegradation analysis.”

The stiff language belies the damage the Mountain Valley Pipeline could do. According to an environmental impact statement, the project “would be located in 13 major watersheds.” The route crosses more than 1,100 waterways, including five “major bodies.” Moreover, 152 miles (all but 44 miles) of the pipeline route in that state “were identified as having a high incidence of and high susceptibility for landslides.”

Environmentalists and local opponents to the project have roundly criticized the permitting process.

“’Water is life’ isn’t just a slogan for West Virginians who depend on healthy wells, springs, streams and ponds for their families, farms and wildlife—it’s a reality,” Judy Azulay, president of the Indian Creek Watershed Association (ICWA), said in a statement. “For three years, ICWA and local landowners have been alerting DEP about how this pipeline threatens to degrade critical water resources. Experts have called portions a ‘no build zone.’ We hope that DEP will finally agree that no best management practices can make this pipeline safe for West Virginia waters.”

In an op-ed published in the Martinsville (Virginia) Bulletin this week, E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., an alumni distinguished professor at Virginia Tech, wrote that the pipeline is causing “distress” among residents who live along the proposed route.

“This proposed pipeline is causing severe distress among the majority of residents who understand the devastating environmental impact of the MVP. And this distress has caused severe, life-threatening illnesses for some folks in our community,” he writes.

They hired soil specialists, geologists, and lawyers to make the science-based case that the proposed MVP route is unsafe and dramatically destructive to the environment and its resources, including water—a life necessity. They wrote data-based opposition letters to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), explaining the irrationality of the proposed MVP. Yet it seems all of these stress-reduction strategies have fallen on deaf ears. None have yet worked to dissuade the construction of the proposed MVP.

The lawsuit against the DEP is not the only legal action pipeline opponents have taken. Virginia and West Virginia residents are also challenging the pipeline developer’s use of eminent domain for the project. In a federal lawsuit, the landowners are contesting “the constitutionality of the eminent domain provisions of the Natural Gas Act,” which allow the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to approve the use of eminent domain. Nearly every natural gas pipeline in the United States has been built using eminent domain.

Mountain Valley Pipeline is just one of several major pipelines currently proposed or in development in the Mid-Atlantic region. The infrastructure — which Oil Change International estimates is enough to prevent the United States from meeting its goals under the Paris climate agreement — is set to bring trillions of cubic feet of natural gas annually from the Marcellus shale basin in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia to markets along the East Coast, including to export terminals.

An Oil Change International analysis estimated that fracking, transporting, and burning gas from the Mountain Valley Pipeline project would cause nearly 90 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions to be added to the atmosphere each year, roughly the same as emissions from 26 coal-fired power plants.

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