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COVID-19 patients are filling Southwest Virginia hospitals, but key pipeline permit meetings are only in person

People stand holding signs
Demonstrators against the Mountain Valley Pipeline protest at Northern Virginia Community College where gubernatorial candidates, Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin are debating each other, in Alexandria, Va., Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The state Water Control Board heard in-person public comments on a key Mountain Valley Pipeline water-crossings permit at two meetings this week. The meetings were held in Rocky Mount and Radford in Southwest Virginia, the region the pipeline runs through.

But activists say the board and it’s parent agency, the Department of Environmental Quality, aren’t doing enough to engage with local residents as COVID-19 cases in the region put a major strain on local hospitals.

In an open letter to Gov. Ralph Northam and DEQ last week, dozens of organizations and over a hundred citizens called for a virtually accessible meeting. So far it has not gotten a response.

Grace Tuttle of the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights Coalition says, “there’s a huge difference between staff preparing summaries of written comments and board members hearing directly, face-to-face, the personal and distressing stories from landowners and advocates.”

POWHR polled member organizations and activists likely to speak to the board this week.

“We found in the results of our survey that many of those people were hesitant to attend due to COVID-19 risk,” Tuttle said.

DEQ has run up against complaints about a lack of virtual options in past meetings as well — activists point to West Virginia as an example of what could be. That state’s version of the permit was publicly considered over Zoom.

DEQ representatives told VPM that the agency is following state law with its public comment period.

As for the project itself, most of the pipe has been laid, but work stopped in 2019 due to a series of environmental violations and concerns.

Jessica Sims, a field coordinator for advocacy group Appalachian Voices, attended both meetings this week.

“What is left is the hardest part of the route, and it is going through waterways, and they will try to rush this if they get this permit,” Sims said.

Supporters of the project say the draft permit currently before the board would protect local water and that the pipeline would boost the local economy.

Sims says economics are not under the purview of the Water Control Board.