BOLAR, Va. — The state is going “above and beyond” in its efforts to evaluate what impact two proposed natural gas pipelines would have on water quality, Virginia’s top environmental official says — a response to criticism from pipeline opponents that was sparked by his department’s release of inaccurate information.
The Department of Environmental Quality told news outlets earlier this year that it would conduct a water-quality review process for the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines involving an examination of every water body crossing. Weeks later, the department made it clear that wasn’t the case.
Director David Paylor said in an interview Tuesday that the discrepancy was due to a miscommunication, and the department was not backtracking.
“It is a matter of terminology that has gotten people confused,” said Paylor, who spoke with The Associated Press after touring parts of Bath and Highland counties that would be crossed by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline with a group of environmental advocates, local elected officials and reporters.
The issue began in April, when the department sent out a news release saying it would require water-quality certifications for the pipelines under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. The certifications are a powerful tool granted to states under the federal law; denials of them have blocked two natural gas pipelines in New York.
Department spokesman Bill Hayden told reporters as part of that certification, the department would examine each pipeline water crossing to ensure the state’s standards were being upheld. Environmental groups cheered the decision, but Hayden’s description wasn’t entirely accurate.
Instead, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will evaluate the crossings and decide whether to issue a permit. DEQ will use the 401 certification process to supplement that review, looking at issues the corps doesn’t.
The corps’ permit deals with a “very narrow piece of the construction,” the actual crossing of the streams, said Melanie Davenport, the director of DEQ’s water permitting division. The department’s review will evaluate “upland” issues in areas outside of the streams themselves that could affect water quality, such as erosion, blasting plans and spill-prevention controls, she said.
The department had the legal authority to simply use the corps’ permit, Paylor said.
“It’s my view we are going way above and beyond,” he said.
Environmental groups disagree.
Greg Buppert, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that while it’s a good thing the department is taking a closer look at some issues, he doesn’t think the corps’ review process is adequate, partly because it doesn’t look at the cumulative impact of projects.
“Virginia has broad authority here. They’re exercising a portion of it,” Buppert said.
Other pipeline opponents questioned why it took the department nearly two months to correct Hayden’s widely reported statements.
The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines still must be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That could come later this year.
Supporters say the projects will boost economic development and provide a cleaner energy alternative as utilities move away from dirtier coal. But opponents say they will infringe on landowners’ property rights, damage pristine parts of the state, and commit the state to fossil fuels for years to come.