After a contentious Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) hearing, the Virginia State Water Control Board voted Tuesday afternoon for a conditional approval of the 401 Certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) permit, tentatively stalling the ACP from moving forward with their pipeline construction planning process.
The vote was considered a positive decision for many landowners and environmental groups who oppose the pipeline, as the vote means ACP does not have an effective certification today.
“It is good because the Board today acknowledged what we have been saying all along: this process is flawed, that they can’t in good faith make a final decision without all the information,” said David Sligh, conservation director at Wild Virginia and former DEQ engineer. “There’s a great deal of information that has not been assembled, not submitted, and not reviewed as it must be.”
This approval is contingent on many conditions which must be met within an undetermined 12-month period, set by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The vote is considered a more positive outcome for opposition compared to that of the DEQ hearing last week, which resulted in a full permit approval for the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). A lawsuit has already been filed against the MVP decision in federal court by groups like Wild Virginia, Sierra Club, and Southern Environmental Law Center.
“We have never seen this kind of uprising on an environmental issue in this state,” Sligh said. “I’ve been working on these issues for over 35 years and I have never seen this kind of effort. I’ve never seen this kind of unity.”
The hearing, under the guidance of the Virginia DEQ, was meant to ensure ACP construction would follow all Virginia water quality and protection standards before granting the company a permit to build. Because of the structure in which DEQ has segmented these hearings, this certificate only addressed land disturbing activities outside of rivers and wetlands.
“All this turmoil is specifically because of the way DEQ designed this process,” Sligh said. “By segmenting all these different parts and trying to address them separately, they made a mess. They created a situation by which the Board didn’t have the ability to make the kind of straightforward case that they should have been able to make.”
401 Certification of the Clean Water Act strictly concerns the construction oversight for the upland areas on the pipeline route. Other certifications, such as erosion and sediment control, stormwater management, karst testing, and steep slope analysis have not yet been examined by the Board.
“Ultimately, DEQ works for Terry McAuliffe,” said Mike Tidwell, Chesapeake Climate Action Network founder and director. “Terry McAuliffe has never to this day sat down and met with landowners opposed to this pipeline. He’s met for hours and hours and hours with Dominion. […] It would be great if the governor himself would say, ‘I hear you, Virginians. I hear you, landowners. I hear you, farmers. I hear you, students.’”
During the hearing, Board member Roberta Kellam made a motion to deny the 401 Certification. After meeting conflict from the Board, the motion did not reach a vote. When audience members voiced their disappointment at this during the hearing, Board member Timothy Hayes commented the audience would “understand when they’re older,” in reference to the hearing proceedings.
This comment caused so much upheaval from the audience, including standing in unity, clapping and shouting to drown out any comments from the Board, they called for a 20-minute break while police officers stood nearby.
“Everyone in rural Virginia wants to protect Virginia and wants to protect their water,” said Cathy Chandler, Roanoke County landowner. “I felt the Board tried to ask good questions, and they got a very circuitous, jumbled response [from DEQ] without time and attention to giving an answer with clarity.”
Worried they may involuntarily waive their authority under the Clean Water Act involuntarily to FERC, the majority of the Board felt pressured to make the decision yesterday rather than delay a vote, according to Peter Anderson, Virginia program manager with Appalachian Voices.
“It was a very nuanced decision,” Anderson said. “[The Board] is calling it a 401 Certification Clean Water Act certification, but there’s all these conditions in it to say, ‘Well, but, we reserve the right to make more decisions on this in the future.’”
Although landowners and environmental groups hope to see further certifications denied in the future, they are hopeful about this decision.
“We’re seeing Dominion Energy’s might being thrown around here,” said Deborah Kushner, Nelson County landowner. “These pipeline construction companies have so much profit to gain. […] I’m really heartened by seeing people [at this hearing] who respond and are not quiet.”
*Photos by Madelyne Ashworth