After stringing citizens along for months over a planned hearing, Austin Caperton, Secretary of the West Department of Environment (DEP) approved the storm water permit late Friday night for the Mountaineer Gas pipeline extension to planned Rockwool facility in Jefferson County.
A hearing had been announced in the Martinsburg Journal on January 25th.
It was supposed to be held at the Ranson Civic Center on February 21st. Then it was postponed due to a conflict with that venue.
Local citizens’ groups had been in contact with the DEP continuously.
At one point, a representative of the agency told Berkeley County resident Tracy Cannon that Ranson had contacted them, saying that the city “could not guarantee the DEP’s safety.” Cannon called the excuse “a highly suspect claim, considering there have been no incidents whatsoever at any previous hearings.”
Negotiations were ongoing just last week between Jefferson county representatives and the DEP about a hearing to be held over the stormwater permit for the pipeline extension to the Rockwool site.
Delegates John Doyle and Sammi Brown had been talking to the DEP general counsel. The Jefferson County Commission had requested a hearing on behalf of county residents.
Hundreds of citizens have called and emailed the DEP asking for a hearing since November of last year.
Then on Friday, Caperton, a former coal industry executive and the current West Virginia Secretary of the DEP, signed the permit allowing construction of the highly contested pipeline to begin.
Landowners along the pipeline route have been told by Mountaineer to expect work to begin on their property in 1-2 weeks.
“We call for Mountaineer to not begin any work on the pipeline, since the public’s environmental and safety concerns about this pipeline have not been heard or addressed by the DEP,” Cannon said. “Our organization plans to appeal this decision.”
“The WV Department of Environmental Protection has utterly betrayed Eastern Panhandle residents with their approval of the permit for the Rockwool Pipeline Extension,” said Regina Hendrix, chair of the Eastern Panhandle Sierra Club. “The agency agreed to hold a hearing back in January, based on the high level of public interest in the pipeline issue.”
“The meeting was scheduled for February 21, then it was postponed. Hundreds of concerned citizens then sent emails requesting a public hearing. Our state delegates were in the process of negotiating for a hearing. In the midst of talks and in an outrageous display of bad faith the WVDEP went ahead and issued the permit. This is clearly another instance of Charleston’s complete disregard for the health and well-being of Eastern Panhandle residents.”
The pipeline extension to Rockwool is part of the Eastern Panhandle Expansion project. This pipeline project was dealt a blow on January 2 when the Maryland Public Works Board denied an easement to the gas company building the Maryland part of the pipeline, which would have passed under the Potomac River.
The trunk line for the project is largely complete between Martinsburg and Berkeley Springs, with the exception of the crossing of Back Creek and Sleepy Creek, where Mountaineer’s contractors seem to have encountered difficulties, Cannon said.
The hydraulic directional drilling at Sleepy Creek began on April 20, 2018, and is still ongoing, Cannon said.
The Extension to the controversial Rockwool facility in Jefferson County had been approved by the Public Service Commission last October, but still needed approval from the DEP until it was granted on Friday.
As early as last November, citizens of the Eastern Panhandle began contacting the DEP to request a public hearing on the pipeline extension.
In mid-January, the DEP contacted Cannon to let her know the hearing would be scheduled due to the high level of public interest.
At a different DEP hearing on January 30th, representatives of the DEP told members of the public that the pipeline hearing would have to be rescheduled due to a conflict at the Ranson Civic Center.
“Since then, we have been in constant contact with the DEP,” Cannon said. “At first, the agency informed us that they were having trouble finding a venue. By the end of February, after the originally scheduled date had passed, officials gave us the no comment treatment when asked about the hearing. Then, on March 6, an official stated that someone from Ranson has told him that ‘they couldn’t guarantee the DEP’s safety.'”
“Finally, our local elected officials got involved and requested the hearing on our behalf. This was to no avail. The DEP did what they probably planned to do from the start, regardless of citizens’ concerns: approve the permit and allow pipeline work to begin.”
Cannon said there are many issues surrounding this pipeline.
“First, Jefferson County has a form of geology known as karst, which consists mostly of limestone. The limestone can be dissolved by water and is prone to sinkholes, caves and underground voids and fissures. The pipeline’s safety can be affected by this. If the pipeline lacked support due to a sinkhole under it, this could cause the pipeline to sag and break. The gas escaping into underground openings would be a public safety hazard.”
“The pipeline is slated to go right through a 15X30 foot sinkhole on the Rockwool property.”
“Second, the Boyd-Carter historical African American Cemetery is located directly next to the pipeline’s limit of disturbance. Pipeline work would begin near this location on Granny Smith Lane in Kearneysville.”
“The lack of transparency from Mountaineer Gas and the DEP has been stunning,” Cannon said. “There are homeowners living less than a hundred feet from the pipeline route who have not heard from the gas company about this project. The gas company also asked property owners for easements along Charles Town Road, then shortened the route so the pipeline would no longer go along that road. Mountaineer did not tell all these homeowners about the change of plans.”