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Virginia governor advised to freeze permits for Atlantic Coast, Mountain Valley gas pipelines


Emergency task force on environmental justice also proposed

Atlantic Coast backer says environmental justice impacts already studied

Arlington, Virginia — An advisory council to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam recommended the Democratic governor to rescind Clean Water Act certifications and not issue any more permits for the up to $6.5 billion Atlantic Coast and up to $3.7 billion Mountain Valley natural gas pipelines in order to protect minority communities along their routes.

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The Advisory Council on Environmental Justice cited concerns about "racism in the siting decision" for an Atlantic Coast compressor station, potential civil and human rights violations, and other practices that endangered the largely African American community in Union Hill in Buckingham County, Virginia. The council also expressed concern over the lack of representation of Native Americans in the federal permitting processes for both pipelines. Collectively, the council said federal and state reviews have not addressed "potential impacts for vulnerable populations."

The council recommended "a review of permitting policies and procedures take place and that the governor direct the Air Pollution Control Board, [Department of Environmental Quality], and [Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy] to stay all further permits for [Atlantic Coast] and [Mountain Valley] to ensure that predominately poor, indigenous, brown and/or black communities do not bear an unequal burden of environmental pollutants and life-altering disruptions."

The council also recommended in its August 16 letter the formation of an emergency task force on environmental justice issues in gas infrastructure.

If Virginia did rescind the Clean Water Act permits and refused to issue new permits, the lack of authorizations could shut down the pipeline projects even though they have received federal approval. Such a move by the state would almost certainly trigger legal challenges by the pipeline developers. New York stopped the Williams-led Constitution Pipeline by denying it a Clean Water Act permit, and so far, federal appeals courts and the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have upheld the permit denial.

Dominion Energy, one of the developers of Atlantic Coast, disagreed with the council's recommendations.

Dominion spokeswoman Jen Kostyniuk said FERC and other agencies have analyzed environmental issues and reviewed the pipeline to make sure low-income and minority communities, defined as "environmental justice" communities by the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies, do not bear the brunt of project impacts.

"In 2016, we formed a community advisory group to help develop our plans for the compressor station," Kostyniuk said. "Several Union Hill residents participated in that process. Based on their valuable input, we made several changes to the facility, all with the goal of minimizing its impact on the community. We will continue to meet with them to address their concerns."

"We have offered to speak numerous times to the advisory council about this project and they have refused," she said. "We are still open to having a conversation."

The projects have encountered obstacles in court and at the state level. FERC issued orders stopping construction on both projects after a federal court removed permissions from federal agencies and threw the pipeline routes into doubt. The commission has since allowed Mountain Valley to resume some construction. The 1.5-Bcf/d Atlantic Coast project and the 2-Bcf/d Mountain Valley project, each several hundred miles long, would carry gas from production areas in West Virginia to Eastern Seaboard markets and to pipeline connections that would take the gas farther.

Northam put together the Advisory Council on Environmental Justice to provide recommendations to improve the state government's protections of low-income and minority communities, among other goals listed in an October 2017 order. Neither the governor's office nor the advisory council responded to inquiries about the likelihood of the governor acting on the council's recommendations.

-- Sean Sullivan, S&P Global Market Intelligence,

-- Edited by Keiron Greenhalgh,