Pipeline Inspectors

By Cindy Rank

Failing to get approval of the more general Nationwide 404 Clean Water Act permit to allow Mountain Valley Pipeline’s (MVP) stream crossing activities, the company has reapplied for permission via the more exacting individual permit procedure which requires not only approval from the Corps, but also requires the state to certify that those activities meet certain conditions specific to West Virginia.

As the WV Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) considers MVP’s new proposals one has to consider a variety of factors that are important – including DEP’s ability to monitor and enforce the conditions of the permits.

In the last two years, the state of West Virginia has asked Mountain Valley Pipeline to pay a bit less than $600,000 for failing to control erosion and allowing sediment to escape into surface waters. In spite of the fact that the pipeline route is two thirds in West Virginia and only a third in Virginia, the same kind of sloppy construction prompted our neighbor to the east to fine the project’s owners $2.15 million.

Why the disconnect? It’s possible that West Virginia officials are biased in favor of big out-of-state energy corporations, certainly. But another cause could be that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is just paying more attention. After all, here in WV there are only 15 people responsible for stormwater permit enforcement and only 1 (one) is dedicated specifically to pipelines.

One person for a state with many hundred miles of pipelines, including 200 miles of MVP now under construction and about 200 MVP stream crossings planned or being built. Of course, that one inspector might hope to get some help from the rest of the Department of Environmental Protection stormwater enforcement staff – if they weren’t so overwhelmed themselves: i.e., each inspector has upwards of 500 permits to oversee. 

Another area in DEP, the Office of Oil & Gas, focuses on wells and drilling but doesn’t do much on pipelines and only has a handful of inspectors anyway. Just last year, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the office “resolved to eliminate 14 of about 39 (total) positions,” due to a budget shortfall. That’s in a state with 60,000 active and 15,000 inactive oil & gas wells.

With so little pipeline oversight we are risking losing valuable, even irreplaceable clear streams that, once clogged with sediment, might never recover.

As the Gazette-Mail recently reported, MVP erosion controls failed after being “overwhelmed” by heavy recent rains in Braxton, Lewis and Webster Counties. But notice – those problems were photographed by a local resident, who then notified the DEP.

Similarly, the paper said a Lewis County landowner reported that flooding in one area destroyed “the pipeline’s silt barriers and fencing, washing out the base of timber mats and suggesting that the area is unstable because of deforestation and saturated soil increasing the risk for mass flooding in the valley.”

Landowners who prove to be DEP’s true eyes and ears on the ground say there is a very real and very serious under-count of violations. Sadly, local folks who have spotted cases of dramatic pollution and gone to DEP have been told that no violations can be written unless an inspector sees the problem firsthand. And obviously, one inspector can’t be everywhere, even if alerted in time to see firsthand.

What would have happened if these folks hadn’t been doing the DEP’s job for it? Would the pipeline have been cited, made to clean up the mess, or been forced to take steps to stop similar issues in the future?

Violations noted by DEP show that MVP has released sediment into streams and rivers on at least 50 separate instances. How many citations would have been made if citizens hadn’t been watching? Maybe more importantly, how many could have been prevented if the agency was supervising construction correctly?

The old saying goes, ‘follow the money’ – if you really want to know what politicians value, look at their budget. What we find repeatedly is our state regulatory agencies don’t have the support, encouragement, or investment from the legislature or administration to adequately regulate the big energy companies – and end up doing an underfunded, inadequate job when forced to.

How much better protected would our waters be if the state invested the comparatively small cost of staffing the WVDEP properly? And how much less damage would there be if DEP slowed pipeline construction until an inspector is on site at all the critical moments?

As DEP considers MVP’s latest water quality application for 401 certification of its activities crossing streams – with some 200 more stream crossings planned – West Virginia should not certify that work as long as the state lacks the personnel and funding needed for adequate oversight and inspection.

A version of this commentary first appeared as an Op-Ed in the June 24th issue of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.