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Editorial: DEP’s hands-off stance on pipeline raises concerns

From The Logan Banner:

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s actions – or inactions – again are raising questions about its commitment to doing a thorough job of protecting the state’s environment.

Again, just like in September, the concerns have to do about how the agency is handling a permit for the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline, which if built would carry natural gas from Wetzel County in Northwestern West Virginia through several other Mountain State counties and into Virginia.

Early this year, DEP approved a water-quality permit for the pipeline. Some environmental groups sued to reverse that decision after DEP Secretary Austin Caperton refused a request by the citizen groups for a hearing on their administrative appeal. Faced with a deadline to file a response to the lawsuit, the DEP instead withdrew its permit approval. The chief reason, it seemed, was that DEP had not met the requirement of examining “compliance with all water quality standards, including a state’s anti-degradation policy” regarding whether a project would harm the quality of water in rivers and streams along the pipeline’s route. The DEP attorney told the court at that time that “in light of that requirement” the agency “recognizes that it needs to consider its antidegradation analysis” and would do so as quickly as possible, the Gazette-Mail reported. In conjunction with that action, the agency suspended its permit approval.

However, Caperton more recently announced that the suspension of the permit would be lifted. Did that mean the DEP completed its “re-evaluation” and was ready to report on its findings? No. It meant that the agency had decided to waive its authority under the federal Clean Water Act to determine whether the pipeline project would violate West Virginia’s water quality standards, according to a report by the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Caperton was quoted as saying on a talk show that “We feel very comfortable that this pipeline can be installed in an environmentally sound manner and that the environmental impacts ultimately will be zero.

Of course, the public has no way of knowing how the department came up with that finding, since it now is taking a hands-off approach on vetting the project’s impact on water quality.

That decision understandably drew criticism from environmental groups opposed to the pipeline projects. Regardless of how one feels about the project itself, the critics do have a point when they condemn the agency as being derelict in its duty in this case. After all, it conceded first that it didn’t do a thorough job in evaluating the project, then decided it wasn’t going to do the job at all.

Will this be the stance of DEP going forward on pipeline projects, of which several more are proposed in West Virginia? Can people who live in the state no longer trust the DEP to look out for the environment and the state’s residents? It’s disturbing that such questions have to be asked, but the DEP’s actions in this case warrant the doubt.

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