The Compliance Surveillance Initiative: Birddogging Pipeline Construction

The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy is a supporter of the Compliance Surveillance Initiative. Anything with “surveillance” in its name starts off with a touch of the ominous, as if the CIA might somehow be involved. While the Compliance Surveillance Initiative is not, in actual fact, anything nearly so dramatic, it is making a difference in terms of how well the law is followed and water is protected during pipeline construction.

One measure of the difference it is making appears in a report prepared by Friends of the Earth and Oil Change International in March, 2019.  That reportAtlantic Coast Pipeline – Risk Upon Risk—identifies the Pipeline CSI as one of three challenges that present serious obstacles for ACP completion. To see the whole report, go to:

The Compliance Surveillance Initiative (CSI) was developed largely under the leadership of Rick Webb as a project of the Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance (ABRA).  It provides extensive mapping tools, aerial surveys, and other support for the citizen monitors it trains.  Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance is a coalition of groups, including the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and West Virginia Rivers Coalition, concerned about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

For more details about the Compliance Surveillance Initiative, go to the ABRA-CSI website ( There you will find more information about the program, including guidance documents, the mapping system, and  citizen-reporting tools and methods.

The CSI program was developed to operate in both Virginia and West Virginia.  From the beginning, most of the aerial surveillance activity has been in West Virginia, since that is where construction activity has occurred.

Compliance Surveillance Initiative’s efforts in West Virginia intensified in the fall of 2018 through a cooperative arrangement among WV Highlands Conservancy, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, and Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance. CSI established a West Virginia Field Coordinator housed with West Virginia Rivers Coalition. The WV Field Coordinator spends about two thirds of her time on the work of the CSI.

The CSI program began to monitor the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and its primary focus remains upon that project.  The resources of the program are, however, shared with the Mountain Valley Watch surveillance program that the POWHR coalition (Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights) mounted to monitor construction activity on that project.

The focus of CSI’s work in West Virginia is monitoring and enforcement.  With the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the Mountaineer Xpress, and other smaller pipelines, pipeline construction is rampant in West Virginia.  With only around a half dozen full time inspectors, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) does not have nearly as many inspectors as would be necessary to monitor the 10,000 acres of earth disturbance from Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the Mountaineer Xpress alone.

Swirling in the background there may be questions of how sincerely West Virginia wants to control pipeline construction and whether the resources or political will exists to devote adequate resources to pipeline enforcement.  No matter what anyone might think of these questions, the fact on the ground is that current state resources are inadequate.  If citizens don’t step in, adequate enforcement is not going to be done.

The work necessarily involves cooperation with the DEP.  No matter what the West Virginia Field Coordinator or any of the citizen volunteers sees on the ground, they have no power to fine anybody, order anybody to fix anything, etc.

What they do is make what they call incident reports.  Working with the pipeline monitoring program developed by WV Rivers Coalition and Trout Unlimited, CSI has expanded a protocol for reviewing photos from both on the ground and in the air, verifying that the photo documents  a potential violation, adding the incident to maps of pipeline construction areas that CSI maintains, filing complaints with enforcement authorities, and following up on any enforcement that is undertaken.

Using this protocol, the WV Field Coordinator has submitted 46 incident reports to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to date.  These reports have resulted in multiple follow-up inspections and two violations being issued. Where violations were not warranted, DEP inspectors issued warnings to improve erosion control deficiencies which resulted in better protections for our streams and rivers.

The process of citizens reporting potential pollution events also involves building relationships with the DEP inspectors.  At first glance it would be easy to stereotype self-appointed inspectors as zealots or dilettantes, eager to see violations where there were none and not understanding what is and is not a violation.  We have overcome those stereotypes. West Virginia Rivers Coalition, in partnership with Compliance Surveillance Initiative and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, have facilitated “pipeline roundtable” meetings with DEP to discuss how to better streamline incident reporting processes and review agency expectations.  The trained citizens are now taken seriously and viewed as a useful extension of the state’s inspectors, making the DEP’s own inspection program more effective.

CSI’s project partners also provide training to citizens.  Some violations are obvious.  If a citizen sees muddy water coming from a site, he or she doesn’t need to know details of any regulations, legal jargon about “conditions not allowed in state waters”, or the best management practices that should be in place.  It looks like a violation because it very likely is.

At the same time, citizen inspectors are going to be more effective if they have some training about what is prohibited, what to look for, etc. The CSI partners provide that training. In partnership with WV Rivers Coalition, Trout Unlimited, Wild Virginia, Appalachian Voices and other local groups, over 500 citizen monitors have been trained, 200 of which are actively monitoring pipeline construction. Trainings included water quality monitoring, visual assessment of pipeline construction, and using online mapping to assist monitoring efforts. As a result of the training they have received, the volunteer monitors are being accepted as reliable sources of information; the information they provide about violations is taken seriously by the DEP.

In addition to the trainings, the CSI WV Field Coordinator provides technical assistance to local groups, regional partners and concerned individual citizens. Most often this involves walking citizens through the processes of how to report pollution, how to access maps of the pipeline route, and how to access inspection reports and reports of violations. This information is not easy to access or readily available unless you know where to look. The Coordinator help groups, citizens and the media in accessing and understanding information.

The work of the CSI WV Field Coordinator has not been entirely training and assisting citizen inspectors.  There are other things as well.

Projects as big as any of the pipelines that are proposed or under construction in West Virginia are subject to regulations and have to get permits. Before permits are issued they are often available for public comment, a time when the public can make suggestions on whether or not a permit should be issued or how it could be strengthened. When the Department of Environmental Protection does take enforcement action, there are opportunities to comment on that action, make suggestions on how the action could be more effective.  As things have turned out, the usual comment on enforcement actions is that the fines have not been nearly large enough to deter the conduct in the future.

Many of the comments on proposed permits, changes in regulations, enforcement actions, etc. have been the subject of previous stories in The Highlands Voice.

Whenever these opportunities to comment have come up in recent months, the Field Coordinator has been instrumental in coordinating and making comments.

The WV Field Coordinator also coordinated a tour of the Mountain Valley Pipeline with  West Virginia legislators.  Even if only five of the legislators took advantage of the opportunity, those who did come got a chance to see first-hand the impact of pipeline construction.  The field trip was followed by a town hall meeting for legislators to see and hear first-hand the impacts for WV landowners and communities.

The Field Coordinator also facilitated a meeting for those legislators to share concerns about construction oversight and enforcement with DEP. The Pipeline Roundtable was attended by 20 individuals including 3 legislators, 10 DEP staff and 6 representatives from the Highlands Conservancy, the WV Rivers Coalition, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and Indian Creek and Greenbrier Watershed Associations. We discussed the enforcement staff’s capacity, the issues and impacts from large scale pipeline construction, and the resulting violations and fines. While there were no ‘ground-breaking’ revelations during this meeting, a lot of good information was shared among the parties that results in stronger commitment to work together to enforce pipeline construction projects and protect our water resources from further damage.