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Opinion/Editorial: DEQ muddies waters over permit plans

Opinion/Editorial: DEQ muddies waters over permit plans

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The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality denies that it’s backpedaling on a statement that it would review water crossings necessitated by the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.

Yet, after saying in April that it would require a separate certification for each crossing, the agency now says it will leave that review to the federal Army Corps of Engineers, which will issue only a blanket permit instead of individual approvals.

DEQ is describing this switcheroo as an admitted lack of “clarity” about the process.

Critics contend that it’s an egregious reversal of declared procedure.

DEQ’s latest statement does sound like a bureaucratic effort to wiggle out of an embarrassment. “In hindsight, DEQ should have tried to provide additional clarity,” said James Golden, the DEQ’s director of operations.

The earlier statement, from DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden, that “the ‘individual’ certification looks at each wetland, stream crossing, etc., separately, to determine specific requirements that would be necessary” seemed pretty darn clear already.

But first, let’s take the situation from the DEQ’s point of view.

The original information came from media relations staffer Hayden. The DEQ now says he had not been fully briefed on the details of the review process.

Mistakes happen. Perhaps the lack of a briefing was the fault of the technical staff; perhaps Mr. Hayden was at fault, exceeding his authority in making such a decisive statement.

While we can and should forgive honest mistakes, news outlets also must be able to rely on the information provided them by media relations personnel — including the eye-catching news that the controversial pipelines would be held to a high environmental standard.

DEQ now says that it chose not to duplicate the review process being implemented by the Corps of Engineers. It says that, instead, it will focus on “upland areas” not covered by the Corps, such as ridgelines and hilltops where land disturbances during construction could affect water quality in the valleys below.

DEQ also says it is still requiring a stronger level of review than the federal permit process will exact, asking pipeline developers to send more information on environmental impact.

We understand the impulse to avoid duplication. Normally, such an effort to conserve taxpayer money would win resounding praise.

In this case, the applause must be tempered by the fact that the two are not, in fact, duplicative — since the state review would have involved a more thorough evaluation of environmental impacts.

And that is why pipeline foes were thrilled to hear, back in April, that DEQ would be taking extra steps to review the pipelines’ potential damage. This was a critically important point on both sides of the debate — and, for that reason, one that the agency should have gotten right.

Having gotten things wrong, DEQ then should have corrected itself immediately. Instead, nearly seven weeks went by before it revised its statement.

No wonder people are angry. No wonder they’re suspicious.

Rather than knowingly succumbing to outside influence, DEQ might simply have oopsed — first with an inaccurate statement, then with its failure to promptly correct that statement.

But DEQ certainly damaged its own reputation, raised false hopes among environmentalists and further muddied the waters in an already complicated and controversial debate.  

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