Cindy Rank: Pipeline Needs More Inspectors (Reviews) | Opinion comments

Over the past two years, the government of West Virginia has asked Mountain Valley Pipeline to pay just under $ 600,000 for failing to control erosion and allowing sediment to escape into the waters. of surface.

Despite the fact that the pipeline route is two-thirds in West Virginia and only one-third in Virginia, the same kind of botched construction prompted our neighbor to the east to fine the owners of the project.

Why the disconnection? It’s possible that West Virginia officials are biased in favor of the big out-of-state energy companies, sure. But another cause could be that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is simply paying more attention. After all, here in West Virginia, there is a dearth of dedicated pipeline permit inspectors (and they should be dedicated) at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

That’s understaffed for a state with several hundred miles of pipelines, including 200 miles of MVP currently under construction and around 200 MVP stream crossings planned or under construction. Of course, these inspectors might hope to get help from the rest of the DEP enforcement staff – if they weren’t overwhelmed themselves. The DEP has about 15 people in total responsible for stormwater permit enforcement, and each inspector has over 500 permits to monitor.

Another area of ​​DEP, the Office of Oil and Gas, focuses on wells and drilling but does not do much on pipelines, and has only a handful of inspectors anyway. Last year, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the office “resolved to eliminate 14 of the 39 [total] posts ”, due to a budget deficit. It is in a state with 60,000 active oil and gas wells and 15,000 inactive.

With so little pipeline monitoring, we risk losing precious, clear, if not irreplaceable streams that, once clogged with sediment, may never recover.

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

Likewise, the newspaper said a Lewis County landowner reported that flooding in one area destroyed “erosion barriers and pipeline fences, washing out the base of the wood mats and suggesting that the area is unstable due to deforestation and saturated soil increasing the risk of massive flooding. in the valley. “

Landowners, who turn out to be the DEP’s real eyes and ears on the ground, say there is a very real and serious undercoverage of violations. Sadly, residents who spotted cases of dramatic pollution and visited the DEP have learned that no violation can be written down unless an inspector sees the problem firsthand. And, of course, an inspector can’t be everywhere, even if he’s alerted in time to see firsthand.

What would have happened if these people hadn’t done DEP’s work for this? Would the pipeline have been cited, made to clean up the mess, or forced to take action to stop similar problems in the future?

The violations found by DEP show that MVP released sediment into streams and rivers in at least 50 cases. How many quotes would have been made if the citizens had not watched?

Perhaps more importantly, how many could have been avoided if the agency supervised construction properly?

The old saying goes, “Follow the money. If you really want to know what politicians like, take a look at their budgets. What we see time and time again is that our state regulatory agencies lack the support, encouragement, or investment of the legislature or administration to adequately regulate large energy companies – and they end up doing underfunded and inadequate work when they have to.

How better protected would our waters be if the state invested the relatively minimal cost of staffing DEP? And how much less damage would there be if the DEP slowed down construction of the pipeline until an inspector was on site at all critical times?

As DEP reviews MVP’s latest water quality claim – with MVP planning another 200 stream crossings – West Virginia cannot authorize work it does not have the funds to do. inspect.

Cindy Rank, of Rock Cave, is chair of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy’s Extractive Industries Committee.

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