‘Old story repeating’: Local activists say it’s déjà vu after congressional intervention regarding pipeline

The sign along the road in Augusta County, remains a vestige of opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, which ultimately folded, but environmental activists are ramping up again after congressional action gave another pipeline — the Mountain Valley Pipeline — a jolt. (File photo)

By Sukainah Abid-Kons, contributor 

Congress’ recent approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline has given its parent company the green light to continue construction and work towards completing the project by the end of 2023. Meanwhile, it’s also given environmental groups and activists a new task — finding ways to halt the project once again.

When Congress passed the “Fiscal Responsibility Act” in May to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a national default, the bill included a provision allowing a near-total approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline at the behest of West Virginia U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin.  

The Mountain Valley Pipeline, or MVP, is a 303-mile structure that will run through West Virginia and Virginia, with a proposed expansion that would stretch into North Carolina. The pipeline has been criticized by environmental activists as being unnecessary and posing significant environmental hazards, such as leaks, which can lead to explosions and loss of land and life.  The project is owned by Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, which is a joint venture between the companies EQT Midstream Partners, LP, NextEra US Gas Assets, LLC, Con Edison Transmission, Inc., WGL Midstream, and RGC Midstream, LLC.

Natalie Cox, a representative from the Mountain Valley Pipeline Project, said the pipeline will be beneficial because it will grant access to “affordable, domestic natural gas.” When completed, the MVP will be 303 miles long and pass through Franklin, Giles, Monroe, Roanoke and Pittsylvania counties in Virginia.

Cox also noted the economic benefits of the pipeline, such as the jobs that it will require until it’s completed. 

“The MVP project is estimated to sustain an average of 2,100 construction jobs in Virginia and 3,700 construction jobs in West Virginia through its targeted completion date,” wrote Cox in an email to The Citizen

But congressional approval of the project has done nothing to squelch environmental activists’ criticism. Some sought to block the pipeline’s contribution through the Jefferson National Forest in West Virginia before Congress stepped in. 

They call it unnecessary and say it poses significant environmental hazards. 

“Mountain Valley Pipeline [is] ill-conceived, unnecessary, and harmful to the people, places, and species of Appalachia,” said Jessica Sims, an organizer with the Virginia chapter of Appalachian Voices who is working to stop the MVP.  

Sims also said that the project so far has already had issues, which furthers many activists’ concerns about what impact the MVP will have once it is completed.  

Construction of the project is about 94% complete, and the company aims to have the pipeline completed by the end of 2023. With just months remaining until the targeted completion date, local environmental groups and activists are not convinced that the benefits outweigh the risks. 

When congressional action essentially expedited the pipeline’s construction, the provision in the bill also seemed to partially protect the project from intervention by courts, essentially sealing it off from any legal challenge. The bill calls for taking any challenges away from 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has raised constitutional questions of whether the legislative branch overstepped its power.

That provision also has made it more difficult for environmentalists to continue to fight the project through legal channels, but it has not made it impossible. 

On July 10, the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals located in Richmond, issued a stay of construction on the pipeline, halting any progress on the project until further notice. Manchin, who pushed for the judicial concession in the debt ceiling bill, said the 4th Circuit decision disregards the law. 

While Cox, the spokeswoman for the pipeline, said the project has “undergone an unprecedented level of regulatory review” and that “expert state and federal regulators have consistently concluded the project can be built and operated safely,” the MVP project has also landed in court over environmental violations.  

In 2019, the state of Virginia brought a lawsuit against the MVP for environmental violations, in which MVP ultimately settled to pay a $2.15 million fine over violations that caused erosion in the southwestern Virginia where construction occurred. Sims and other activists are aware of this history, and are concerned about what that means should the pipeline be completed.

“We’ve seen the project be a water disaster in the present, with other 300 water violations related to water quality standards in Virginia, 2.5 million dollars in fines, and sedimentation that has impacted endangered species,” Sims said. 

Cox, responding to that criticism, said the pipeline will carry natural gas, which is a gaseous mixture primarily made up of methane, rather than liquid oil. While natural gas burns cleaner than fuel sources such as coal, it still results in CO2 emissions, and the process of drilling and extracting natural gas leads to various environmental disturbances, according to the U.S. Energy Information Association

Joy Loving, who works with the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley, said she shares similar concerns with Sims. Loving said water contamination that occurs in southwestern Virginia could affect the Chesapeake Bay, as the affected waterways will eventually lead there. 

In an analysis from Duke University’s School of Environment and Earth Sciences, researchers suggested that the impact of methane in the water supply be further studied to better understand the impact that ingesting methane might have on the body. Methane is not regulated as a water contaminant by the EPA, but researchers from Duke suggested that further studies on the impact of the chemical compound in the body could affect how it is regulated by the EPA in the future. 

The inconclusive verdict on exactly how natural gas could impact people if ingested aside, Loving pointed out that the pipeline will further a legacy of environmental injustice in Appalachia. 

“Appalachia has a long history of being plumbed for its resources, and its people have not reaped the benefits,” said Loving. “This is an old story repeating with the MVP.” 

While the debt ceiling bill has expedited the completion timeline for the MVP, Sims said Appalachian Voices is not yet done with its efforts to stop the project. 

“We will never stop fighting the project,” Sims said. “What we’re looking at now are the immediate safety concerns, and how to keep an eye on accountability on the developers.” 

Opposition to this project also goes beyond Appalachian Voices and CAAV. The decision to throw out motions against the MVP in court is being challenged by the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of The Wilderness Society. Additionally, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine proposed an amendment to remove the MVP stipulation from the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was ultimately rejected by the Senate. 

Despite setbacks, Sims, Loving, and their respective organizations are all committed to challenging this pipeline for as long as the project goes on. 

“Defeating this unnecessary and ill-conceived project that has already degraded water quality across two states and would contribute significantly to the climate crisis if it is completed and brought into service is a top priority,” said Tom Commons, executive director of Appalachian Voices. 

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