Forest fracas: Activists and lawyers continue pipeline fight in western Virginia

Mountain Valley Watch has taken thousands of aerial photos, like the one above, to catalog the pipeline’s construction violations. Erosion control devices called filter socks are visible to the right of the clear-cut path. Photo courtesy Mountain Valley Watch. Mountain Valley Watch has taken thousands of aerial photos, like the one above, to catalog the pipeline’s construction violations. Erosion control devices called filter socks are visible to the right of the clear-cut path. Photo courtesy Mountain Valley Watch.

In July, the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline was canceled, sending shock waves through the energy industry and sparking jubilant celebrations from activists who had spent years fighting the project. 

There’s no rest for the weary, though. Further west, a little deeper into the Appalachian hills, another fight rages on. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, if completed, would pull natural gas from the prehistoric Marcellus Shale deposits underneath West Virginia and carry the fuel 300 miles to southern Virginia. 

After six years of opposition from grass­roots groups and professional environmental advocacy organizations, the fight over the MVP is entering a definitive stretch.

On October 9, a long-standing stop-work order for the pipeline was lifted, allowing construction to resume along most of the pipeline’s length. Then, on November 9, federal judges once again halted work to allow for further examination of a key stream-crossing permit.

The pipeline’s opponents say the regulatory agencies charged with making sure construction unfolds lawfully have been asleep at the wheel. They’re making their case in both the forest and the courtroom. 

EQT, the energy corporation spearheading the project, says the MVP is 92 percent complete. Activists who oppose the project say that’s an overstatement, and that the real figure is closer to 78 percent. 

Either way, “it’s over $3 billion over budget and three years behind schedule,” says Joan Walker, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign. “And that’s an optimistic outlook.”

“It’s been a long, long opposition,” says Kirk Bowers, co-founder of the Mountain Valley Watch, a volunteer pipe­line oversight organization. The group monitors pipeline construction and submits reports of violations to the various state and federal agencies that are supposed to be overseeing the project, hoping the agencies will then slap the project with sanctions. This monitoring plays an important role in the ongoing pipeline legal debates.

“Over 350 instances have been charged,” says Walker. “There have been many more water quality violations, permit violations that have been found by volunteers in the field, like Kirk Bowers and Mountain Valley Watch, that didn’t result in formal charges.”

These activists, years into this conflict and staring down a huge corporation, still have energy to spare. Bowers, a retired engineer and Charlottesville resident, began his career in local activism arguing against the Route 29 bypass, the proposed highway detour through Albemarle County that was eventually canceled after years of heated discussion and opposition from environ­mental groups. Since then, he’s been all in on pipeline opposition.

For Bowers, the MVP fight is personal, but it’s also about the environment at large. “The pipeline runs through my home county, Roanoke County, just a few miles from where I grew up,” he says. “People need to know about it. It’s larger, it carries more gas than the ACP, which results in much larger greenhouse gas emissions.”

The MVP, if completed, would produce around 90 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, reports Oil Change International. For reference, the entire state of Virginia produced 105 million metric tons of carbon emissions in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Bowers is emblematic of the grassroots organizers who have banded together to oppose the project for the last half decade and counting. Walker says the activism has been “awe-inspiring.” 

“A lot of these people that are in the fight, they’re not advocates, they’re just trying to live their life,” says Walker. “A lot of folks are retirees, they’ve retired to these mountains.”

Occasionally, the anti-pipeline activists have an informal charm. In a powerpoint detailing the pipeline’s progress, a selection of photos of clear-cut forest is accompanied with the caption, “The Owls Cried For a Week!”

Underestimate these organizers at your own peril, however. The Mountain Valley Watch has built an efficient and high-tech pipeline oversight system, making use of drones and manned aircraft. And other act­ivists have put their bodies on the line to demonstrate their opposition to the project, camping out in trees in the pipeline’s path for weeks at a time.

“Time is money, and delays are costs for the project,” Bowers says. “Its still up in the air whether they’re going to finish it or not.”

Pipeline opponents sense that the corporation’s commitment to the project is waning. On EQT’s latest quarterly earnings call in July, the company’s CEO suggested that he was looking to offload its portion of the project “at cost.” 

Meanwhile, lawyers from a variety of organizations continue to fight the project in court. At the center of the litigation is a disagreement over whether or not the pipeline should be able to pass through the Jefferson National Forest, part of a 2,700 square-mile tract of protected wilderness in Appalachia. In late 2017, the Forest Service signed off on the crossing. The next year, a coalition of environmental groups challenged the Forest Service’s permit and won. Now, an amended permit is back on the table.

Nathan Matthews, senior attorney for the Sierra Club, says the coalition isn’t trying to drag this out, just get an accurate ruling.

“Our concern is that, as proposed, the pipeline just cannot comply with a wide range of environmental laws,” Matthews says. “It’s not that we want to slow down the Forest Service. We want the Forest Service to make a decision, and that decision should be no.”

Matthews and the Sierra Club say the Forest Service overstated the efficacy of the pipeline’s erosion control measures when it granted the permit.

“Building a pipeline involves clearing a swathe of land and digging a trench up and down steep slopes,” Matthews says. “If you wanted to cause a lot of erosion, the thing you would do would be dig a trench straight up a slope.”

The sediment runoff from that con­struction would spell doom for endangered species like the Roanoke logperch, a venerable muddy-colored little fish found only in Virginia and North Carolina, and the candy darter, a shimmering green and orange four-inch-long fish that has as much panache as the most glamorous coral reef dweller.

Matthews says the Forest Service also “failed to comply with its own planning rules” and cut corners when it drew the pipeline’s route through the woods. 

For the last month and half, the Forest Service has been accepting public comment on its latest environmental impact analysis, an important element of the permitting process. The Sierra Club has coordinated the submission of more than 3,000 com­ments, says Walker; thousands more have been turned in by individuals and other groups. (Bowers has submitted his own comments, which he describes as “extremely long.”) The Forest Service will review those comments before issuing another environmental impact statement and making a final decision.

“It’s been a roller coaster ride the last several months,” Bowers says, citing the back and forth over these permits. “We still have a lot of high hopes and spirit, and we’re definitely not giving up fighting this.”

For the time being, EQT continues to move forward with the project, pushing its pipeline through the area’s ancient hills. 

“The portions that they have left to go, it’s the steepest, most difficult terrain,” says Walker. “They literally have an uphill battle.”

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