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Key Mountain Valley Pipeline structure fails to get permit approval

construction site
Mountain Valley Pipeline construction in Franklin County, Virginia. (Photo: Anne Bernard, an affected landowner)

In a 6-1 vote, the state Air Pollution Control Board has denied a permit application for Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC to build the Lambert compressor station in Pittsylvania County, citing a section of Virginia’s environmental justice act. The station would have been located directly next to two existing compressor stations owned by Transco and would have sat within 5 miles of 4 environmental justice communities.

The process, like many board decisions dealing with the state Department of Environmental Quality, has been controversial. DEQ firmly recommended that the board approve the permit application before a decision was made.

It was the first substantial permit before the board since the passage of Virginia’s environmental justice law. Board members agreed that the station would disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income communities. Member Hope Cupit argued that under the new law, the board’s duty is to promote EJ, not just consider it.

“If the Virginia Environmental Justice Act is to mean anything, and if we as a Commonwealth are going to promote environmental justice, then the time has come to reject proposals like this,” Cupit said.

The board found that not all potentially affected communities got ‘fair treatment’ in the process, which is a requirement of the state’s EJ law, and that the proposed site for the project was unsuitable. Given those findings, a vote to approve the permit failed, and a vote to deny the permit succeeded.

The board heard hours of public comment spread over two days. Those speaking in opposition to the station pointed to the state’s new law as well as a court case that vacated a previous board approval of a similar permit.

Members of the Pittsylvania County government spoke in support of the permit. County Administrator David Smitherman said the project would increase local revenues.

“We will use the financial benefits to bring broadband access to our citizens, something that is woefully absent in our community,” Smitherman said.

He also decried what he described as outside influence, specifically taking issue with “social justice and environmental justice interests” from other parts of the state and country which he says have attempted to stir controversy where there is none.

Compressor stations help move pipeline contents more quickly and over longer distances. In this case, MVP and it’s parent company, Equitrans Midstream, hoped to boost their efficiency in the proposed MVP Southgate extension. That section of pipe, which the company says is almost complete, stretches an additional 75 miles into Alamance County, North Carolina.

The proposed station would have relied on two main natural gas powered engines, which release a range of pollutants like nitrous oxide and particulate matter that the Environmental Protection Agency says are harmful to people’s health. These pollutants are regulated by National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

According to DEQ’s modelling of the Lambert station’s worst possible emissions scenario, local air pollutants would sit within accepted levels under the NAAQS. They found the station would likely not breach Virginia clean air law or the federal Clean Air Act. Staff described the project as having no potential for “adverse impact” and claimed it would be the most stringently controlled pollution source of its kind nationwide.

Some commenters disputed the usefulness of NAAQS altogether, including New York University Professor George Thurston. Thurston has studied air quality and health for over three decades with multiple publications specifically dealing with particulate matter like PM 2.5, one of the pollutants studied for the draft permit.

“I’ve been sitting here all day watching them talk about ‘Well, it’s below the NAAQS, so we don’t have to worry about that,’” he told the board on Thursday. “Well, you do have to worry about it.”

He says his research shows that although PM 2.5 levels in much of the country have declined following pollution controls stemming from the Clean Air Act, the same heightened health risks persist.

“There is no threshold below which these particles don’t affect your health adversely,” Thurston said.

Others raised concerns about the legal defensibility of NAAQS as a sufficient standard under Virginia’s environmental justice law and court precedent.

Last year, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated an earlier compressor station approval in Friends of Buckingham v. State Air Pollution Control Board. The judges found the board failed to adequately “consider the potential degree of injury to the local population independent of NAAQS and state emission standards.” In short, they found these standards to be insufficient measures of potential health impacts.

To Elizabeth Jones, the health threat is real. She’s the environmental justice chair of the Pittsylvania County NAACP and a “fenceline community” member. Under Virginia law, that means she lives in a low-income community that’s affected by a major pollution source - in this case, the existing Transco stations.

Jones lives on property with her husband that has been in his family for nearly a century. They both suffer from respiratory illness and are afraid of the impacts a new station could have on their air.

“We want to protect our home and our heritage for our children and our grandchildren,” Jones dictated from her husband’s written comment.

The same court decision found the board did not consider zero-emitting electric compressor motors as an alternative, in violation of Virginia clean air law. The report on Lambert states electric motors would not be feasible on the site due to a lack of backup options if power failed. The board unanimously agreed DEQ and MVP did not make the same error in this case.

Opponents say it would be irresponsible to install new fossil fuel infrastructure given the climate crisis facing humanity.

Nicholas Morse is a farmer who lives about two miles from the proposed site. He told the board he’s an environmentalist working in Pittsylvania to protect local water, forest and grasses. He worked with similar turbines in the military and says he has no problem with the proposal - “it will have no negative impacts on my land and my living.”

It’s unclear where the decision leaves MVP’s extension, which is itself pending state and federal approval after water crossing permits were revoked. The company says most of the work is done, but activists say the sections that remain are the most difficult to build on and are susceptible to environmental damage, including pollution and erosion.