Advocacy | Conservation | Science

Pipeline report documents repeated pollution events

Pipeline construction can be hazardous to trout.
TU Photo.

In central Appalachia, installing natural gas pipelines often involves trenching through wild trout streams by the dozens. Inevitably, that leads to problems. Storms pelt construction sites, sending plumes of sediment into waters. Stream crossing procedures fail. Restoration is not completed. All this puts coldwater resources at risk.

Several major new pipelines have been built in the region recently, and more are on the books. The 116-mile PennEast Pipeline and 125-mile Constitution Pipeline, to name two, would cross scores of high-quality coldwater streams in northeastern Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.

Under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, states have the authority to determine whether construction of an interstate pipeline would degrade water quality in their streams. This gives them an important seat at the table.

So this summer, Trout Unlimited asked a research firm to look at the water pollution events that occurred during recent pipeline construction projects, and report back on what state regulators can do to prevent them next time. The resulting report shows how important it is for state environmental protection departments to conduct thorough reviews of pipeline proposals, draft smart permit conditions, and then enforce them on the ground.

Downstream Strategies, a West Virginia research firm with expertise on the nexus between pipeline construction and water quality, examined the construction of four recent pipelines: Mariner East II in Pennsylvania, the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia and Virginia, the WB Xpress in West Virginia, and the Rover in Ohio and West Virginia.

Downstream Strategies, a West Virginia research firm with expertise on the nexus between pipeline construction and water quality, examined the construction of four recent pipelines.

The report documented repeated pollution incidents that led to violations.

On the Mariner East II and the Rover, drilling “mud”—used to help bore pipelines under streams—spilled repeatedly, contaminating surrounding waters and wetlands.

On other pipelines, devices designed to keep sediment out of the water were not installed, or were not installed correctly, or were not maintained properly. When storms hit, streams were inundated with plumes of sediment, which interferes with feeding, can smother spawning redds, and destroy habitat for the stream bugs that trout eat.

Last October, a failed pump at a stream crossing near Seneca Rocks, W.Va., causing a sediment release into the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River that ran for at least 19 miles downstream.

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, developers of the PennEast and Constitution pipelines have assured federal and state regulators that none of this will happen on their watch. But other pipeline developers have made the same assurances about other pipeline projects.

State regulators would be wise to take a harder look at pipeline proposals, and to include permit conditions that ensure that paper promises translate into on-the-ground action.

Downstream Strategies offers a number of recommendations to help make that happen. Among them, the report makes a case for regulators to require:

  • Additional inspectors to ensure proper control of erosion and sediment
  • Site-specific stormwater management plans for all stream crossings
  • A designated stormwater manager to focus on environmental impacts
  • Sufficient company staff and communication plans to properly oversee and correct failed erosion and sediment controls

The findings in this report make it clear that more needs to be done to ensure that pipeline construction does not degrade our streams and rivers. Proper planning and adequate oversight are required to prevent the type of water quality violations that have plagued other recent pipeline construction projects over the past several years.

New Jersey and New York have denied state permits and water quality certifications for both PennEast and Constitution, but both matters are under review by the courts and federal regulators.

Meanwhile, the EPA has proposed to curtail these assessments under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. How can you help? Take a moment today to tell Congress to stand up for the Clean Water Act. States should retain the authority granted under Section 401 to review federal infrastructure projects and ensure that our rivers, streams, and wetlands are protected from development impacts.

To learn how else you can help protect wild trout streams, please reach out to Dave Kinney, TU’s Eastern policy director, at david.kinney@tu.org.