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Pipeline opponents say Va. water regulatory process is broken

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RICHMOND — Virginia's water regulation process is under scrutiny following a series of problems this year that include a meeting being delayed more than two months, a website going down, and struggles by the state to respond to a records request under the Freedom of Information Act.

For people concerned about the effects that construction of two natural gas pipelines will have on water quality, it all symbolizes a broken state regulatory process that's supposed to protect Virginia's waterways.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality had authority to review hundreds of spots where the federally approved Mountain Valley Pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cross Virginia waterways in order to ensure the water ways wouldn't be contaminated, but has ceded that authority to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Gov. Ralph Northam, a supporter of the projects, has called for them to be held to high environ-mental standards. In the Democratic primary for governor in 2017, facing populist Tom Perriello, Northam called for DEQ to conduct a site-specific analysis of proposed pipeline water crossings.

On April 12, under pressure from concerned property owners and environmentalists, the seven-member State Water Control Board approved a 30-day comment period to solicit public input on whether approvals the Corps of Engineers granted under what's called Nationwide Permit 12 will adequately protect Virginia waterways. The pipelines would cross some of Virginia's steepest landscapes and remove trees on mountains.

The deadline to mail or email comments ahead of the water board's June 11 meeting was Thurs-day, May 31.

But then things started getting pushed back.

On May 3, Cindy Berndt, director of regulatory affairs for DEQ, emailed water board members to say there might be a conflict with June 11. She asked for each member's availability before Aug. 3.

Then, according to DEQ records, a "malicious party" got into the agency's content management system but was detected early. DEQ, working with the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, took down the DEQ website on May 22 for a security review.

On May 25, water board members were told the June 11 meeting was canceled and rescheduled for Aug. 21. A few days later, Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler emailed Clark Mercer, Northam's chief of staff, and others to ask that the website get back online quickly after it had been down for about a week.

"With everything going on at DEQ [people] are going to start accusing us of doing this in purpose," Strickler wrote.

Jon Sokolow, a Northern Virginia lawyer and pipeline activist, made a request under the Freedom of Information Act to DEQ and the governor's office for records about the meeting cancellation. Records show board members were available sooner than Aug. 21.

DEQ spokeswoman Ann Regn said by email for this story that the volume of comments, availability of board members, website outage and extension of the comment period were all factors in the meeting being pushed back to Aug. 21. Regn said that even if the meeting had gone forward on June 11, there were so many comments that they likely wouldn't have been on the water board agenda that day anyway.

DEQ Director David Paylor emailed water board members and DEQ officials over a month ago to tell them more than 13,000 comments were received.

DEQ would evaluate them and submit them and a summary to the board and public, he wrote.

A group of citizens called the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition says DEQ is dragging its feet.

The group sent DEQ a records request for the comments on July 3 with plans to post them online.

DEQ responded five days later to say the agency couldn't provide the emails because of technical difficulties, said David Sligh, an investigator with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition and conservation director with Wild Virginia.

"I frankly was never quite clear as to what the problem was," he said.

He asked if he could review the emails in person on DEQ computers and was told no.

Two days later, DEQ gave the group 7,000 email comments about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. And after asking for a seven-day extension under the Freedom of Information Act, DEQ pro-vided thousands more on the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Wild Virginia posted the comments online and within the next week the group plans to post a summary. DEQ's spokeswoman said the agency hopes to have them on its website by Aug. 1. And she said the technical difficulties stemmed from state employees being switched over to Gmail.

"Wecall on the [water]Board to use this information and hold a meeting well before the currently advertised date of August 21st and on Governor North am to order DEQ to nowmove quickly to do its job," the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition said in an email Friday.

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