The Water Board Did What?!

Back in December, new member of the Virginia State Water Control Board, James Lofton, made a motion to explore revoking the SWCB permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Lofton was appointed to the Board by Governor Ralph Northam following his removal of Roberta Kellam, after she raised serious questions about the damage being wrought by MVP to the water and land resources of southwest Virginia. Lofton’s motion passed the seven-member Board on a 4-3 vote. Eleven weeks later – weeks during which MVP construction continued, with continued damage due to inadequate erosion and sedimentation control – the SWCB finally had a meeting to discuss the possible process for revoking the permit.

Before the March 1, 2019, meeting, MVP sent a letter to the Department of Environmental Quality in which, according to Blue Virginia, “MVP not only objected to the Board commencing a revocation process, but argued that the Board had no authority to do so (“Unilateral action by the board at this time cannot amend or invalidate that license or otherwise block construction”), and that MVP would sue the Board if it went any farther. In a stunning demonstration of corporate arrogance, MVP told the Board that if Virginia actually revoked the state permit, MVP would simply ignore the action and continue construction anyway as long as it had a federal permit.”

Attorneys representing 10 local, state, and regional organizations (including the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation) sent a letter on February 28 to the members of the Virginia State Water Control Board, urging the Board to start promptly a process to revoke the water quality certification issued for the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). At the same time, the attorneys strongly urged the Board to use enforcement tools available to it to stop work on the pipeline while the revocation process goes forward. Responding to claims in the MVP letter, the attorneys stated, “The State Water Control Board (Board) has the authority to revoke the water quality certification for upland activities that it issued to Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC (MVP). The violations MVP has committed and the damage it has done easily meet and exceed the thresholds defined in Virginia law upon which revocation may be based.” The letter also asked that “the Board to take all possible steps to stop work on this project immediately.” The permit itself expressly says that “[t]his Certification is subject to revocation for failure to comply with the above conditions after a proper hearing.”

At the March 1 meeting, a junior attorney from Herring’s office told the Board that MVP was right and that the Board had no authority to revoke MVP’s permit. The junior attorney gave this “advice” despite the fact that Herring’s office had probably written (and had certainly approved) the permit, with language stating that the SWCB does have the authority to revoke it.

The SWCB went into a four-hour closed session shortly after convening their meeting. Virginia Mercury reported that when the public meeting finally resumed, Lofton said “he had deep concerns about the pipeline project’s erosion and sediment control measures but was also worried the state couldn’t revoke the permit. ‘Based on advice of counsel and statute, I do not think the board has the authority to revoke this certification.'” He continued, “The board is very sympathetic to landowners and those opposed to the pipeline, but I’m deeply concerned we would lose the 16 conditions that are in the 401 certification if we attempt to revoke the certification. I simply cannot find the board has the authority to revoke this permit.”

Chairwoman Heather Wood tried to further explain, saying revocation of the permit by the board would “handcuff” the state’s ability to impose additional requirements on the project – and then adjourned the meeting.

In a DEQ statement released after the meeting, Wood said leaving the certification “puts additional protections in place that would not be as strong under sole federal oversight.” Removing it would have “jeopardized the commonwealth’s oversight” of the pipeline project, she added. “This was a unique situation that required time to ensure the proper legal process was and continues to be followed,” Wood said. “The board extensively reviewed all available options to continue enforcement and monitoring of this project to ensure compliance with the conditions of the 401 certification and protection of water quality.”

What happened? MVP told DEQ that they would continue with construction regardless of whether their permit was or was not revoked, and the SWCB decided that they would leave the permit in place. It remains to be seen whether SWCB and DEQ will enforce any of the permit conditions, or whether the suit brought in early December against MVP by Attorney General Mark Herring will have any effect on a corporation that says it will continue to do whatever it wants.