Environmental groups sue over pipeline permitting decision

Published: Jun. 7, 2017 at 5:25 PM EDT
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Several environmental groups are suing the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality over part of the permitting process for two proposed natural gas pipelines.

The Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, Bold Alliance and Preserve Craig Inc. filed suit this week in Richmond Circuit Court. They're challenging an approval DEQ granted in April that allows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct the broader of two types of water quality reviews for the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines.

The suit alleges, among other things, that DEQ "acted arbitrarily and capriciously in finding that water quality protection requirements would be met" under that process.

DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden says the department has no comment.

A spokesman for the Corps' Norfolk District says the more "comprehensive" review process could still be used.

At the same time, Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have introduced a bill designed to alter the process of approving pipelines through FERC to be more transparent.

“For two years now, Virginians have been sharing their views with me on the MVP and ACP,” said Kaine. “Many oppose these projects — some support them — but from listening to all sides, what is clear to me either way is that FERC’s public input process needs improvement. Driving two hours through the mountains to a public meeting at which you can speak for two minutes is not public input. Having 90 days to read and comment on 2,000 pages while a dozen other 400-page supplements are trickling out is not public input. FERC’s job is to adjudicate the public interest — especially when eminent domain is involved — and this requires taking public input more seriously. My bill does not mandate MVP and ACP be built, nor does it block them. It simply takes 8 steps — all based on ideas I heard directly from Virginians – to provide a fairer and more transparent basis for the federal government’s decisions about energy infrastructure.”

“I’ve heard from many Virginians with concerns about the complicated and cumbersome FERC public engagement process, and it’s clear to me that the current process needs to be made a lot more accessible and transparent,” said Warner. “Public participation in an agency’s public proceedings is one of the cornerstones of our democratic process, and our bill sets up a system that ensures that every resident in every locality within the path of a proposed pipeline has a say at each step of the way.”

"This legislation is a big step in the permitting process for new interstate natural gas pipelines as it assures that the public has access to complete information on siting decisions. Moreover, the legislation provides improved direction to federal regulators in their decision-making regarding national scenic trails like the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail and other public and private lands," said Ron Tipton, President and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Specifically, the legislation would:

• State that it is the policy of the United States that eminent domain be limited to situations in which the taking of property is for public, not private, use. This language is from a 2006 Executive Order by President George W. Bush clarifying the scope of federal eminent domain authority;

• Require a single programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) if two gas pipelines are proposed within one year and 100 miles of one another;

• Provide that if there is more information that comes out after a draft EIS than is in a draft EIS, FERC must do a supplemental EIS, with another public comment period;

• Mandate public comment meetings in every locality through which a pipeline passes, at every stage in the process (draft EIS, final EIS, supplemental EIS) so members of the public do not have to drive long distances to meetings where they are only able to speak for just a few minutes;

• Specify that eminent domain takings of land under conservation easement be given fair compensation not just for the land value but for the lost conservation value of the land;

• Ensure that plans to mitigate unavoidable impacts be subject to public comment so the public can verify that the mitigation is fair and proportionate;

• Require cumulative analysis of visual impacts on National Scenic Trails (including the Appalachian Trail) for multiple pipelines that cross the same trail within 100 miles;

• Prohibit any downgrading of National Scenic Trail scenic integrity requirements in current law if the project represents a net degradation to the trail.