Mountain Valley Pipeline: Science, Community Activism, and the Fight to Preserve Scientist voices

September 11, 2023 | 8:30 am
A sign reads WARNING CRUDE PIPELINE, against a background of grass in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Utah and WyomingU.S. Forest Service/Flickr
Trisha Vaidyanathan, Jane Remfert, Hannah Mast, Alissa Ganser

The Virginia Scientist-Community Interface is a coalition of early career scientists dedicated to providing science for community-driven advocacy. As part of this group, we fought to stop the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) in our region because we found clear evidence that the best possible science was not being used. Throughout this process, we learned valuable lessons on the role of scientists in community activism and—recently—what is at stake when scientists’ contributions are lost.

The impact of science and our expertise is reliant on getting science into the hands of lawmakers, agencies, courts, and—critically—requiring them to listen to that science.

Recently, the Biden administration fast-tracked MVP as a rider in the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA)—an act that had nothing to do with natural gas or pipelines—in the latest high-profile example of science being lost in the political process. This deal bypasses all regulatory systems, including those that rely on scientific review processes that should be independent from political pressure. This move is unprecedented, and we fear it may be used to fast-track similar projects in the future. Given this major setback, it can be difficult to maintain motivation, but our experience has shown us that participation in the regulatory process is powerful and can lead to wins. We maintain the belief that this type of participation will continue to make a difference in the future. As such, we feel it is more important than ever for scientists to contribute to issues within their community and protect the voice of scientists in policy and regulation.

Communities and science won several key battles against MVP 

Mountain Valley Pipeline is a 303-mile-long natural gas pipeline running through northwestern West Virginia into southern Virginia across the steep slopes of the Appalachian Mountains. Construction began in 2018 and was forecast to be completed within a year, but lawsuits contesting federal and state construction permits due to environmental impacts to forests, waterways, and wildlife slowed its construction. Environmental advocates have raised alarms about the impact of MVP construction on the Candy Darter fish and other threatened and endangered species along the pipeline route, as well as sediment and erosion impacts to waterways. The remaining construction will cross particularly steep terrain and require technically challenging stream crossings that have a high potential for negative environmental impacts. Locals living along the pipeline route have helped identify nearly 1,500 complaints of polluted drinking wells, flooded land, and mudslides due to the construction. Additionally, MVP has received hundreds of citations and over $2 million in fines for various violations.

Many of the outstanding permits required to complete the pipeline were previously overturned due to impacts on endangered species and waterways, supported by scientific evidence presented in public comments and by lawyers in the courts. It is in these regulatory processes that we at V-SCI found numerous opportunities to contribute. In 2020, community groups asked us to examine MVP’s construction planning documents for technical flaws as numerous residents in the pipeline’s path were reporting environmental concerns. Even though none of us had technical backgrounds in pipeline construction, it was easy to find errors and misrepresentations of existing academic research.

We found MVP relied solely on a simulation model to predict erosion impacts and applied model parameters that were not optimized for the steep terrain of much of the pipeline’s route. We analyzed publicly available U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) water quality data around pipeline construction sites to see for ourselves the true impacts of erosion. In fact, we determined that USGS data reported a 19% increase in sediment, far above the 2% that MVP’s models predicted. As many threatened freshwater mussel and fish species, including the endangered Candy Darter, are vulnerable to increases in sedimentation, inaccurate calculations like this by MVP could lead to serious consequences for the health and survival of these species. 

We submitted our results to the U.S. Forest Service during a public comment period for MVP’s permit to cross the Jefferson National Forest in November 2020. The permit was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in January 2022. Excitingly, the Court cited MVP’s failure to incorporate real-world data in its environmental impacts analysis as a key reason for overturning the permit. This was an incredible win for our team and illustrated the ways our training and background could directly contribute to a community effort. However, under the current restrictions set by the Fiscal Responsibility Act, our real-world analysis would never have been reviewed.

Politics over science

The FRA, signed by President Joe Biden on June 3, 2023, directs federal agencies to grant MVP all remaining necessary permits and removes judicial authority to review any federal permits. Citing the FRA, MVP has filed motions to dismiss three active legal cases over federal permits. The bill removes the opportunity for local residents and community advocates to submit public comments during the permitting process, which agencies are required to read and address, and overrides the court system meant to keep the process in check. Critically, these are all instances in which scientific evidence is utilized and reviewed before granting permits. 

While the FRA attempts to bypass scientific review, the battle continues. Just one month after the FRA passed, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Virginia stopped construction again, raising the question of whether the FRA was Constitutional, and challenging that the move violated the Endangered Species Act. This brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, who overturned the 4th Circuit Court ruling on July 27, 2023, at the request of MVP, West Virginia, and the current administration. As of now, MVP is expected to resume pipeline construction, including the portion that will pass through the Jefferson National Forest that we submitted our public comments on. Congressional clearance of the MVP does not invalidate science, it ignores it; seemingly expecting past environmental violations will not repeat themselves, with no evidence to the contrary.

There are numerous proposed pipeline projects throughout the United States that pose similar threats to the environment and communities residing near construction zones, which represent opportunities for scientific evidence and scientific voices to make a strong impact. From our experience with MVP we learned several critical lessons that we wish to impart to other scientists interested in having a voice in their own community.

3 tips for scientists interested in informing policy and regulations

1. Your expertise is broader than you think, and scientific training can be used in a wide variety of applications. At V-SCI, we work as an interdisciplinary team, with expertise ranging from population genetics, to freshwater mussel biology, to childhood health. While none of us had any background in pipelines, we were all able to parse technical documentation and find relevant literature. This skill set proved to be greatly valued by the non-scientists we collaborated with. 

2. Your power will come from working with the community and for the community. We have learned we must first listen to the concerns and needs of the community before jumping ahead with our own ideas. Your scientific expertise only has power to the extent that you understand how it fits into the local political and legal landscape. Finding opportunities for scientific expertise to bolster—but not replace—existing community efforts is the key to a lasting impact.

3. Forging relationships with advocacy groups can form a bridge between the public and science. We are currently in a time in which public trust in science is at an all-time low. Forming individual relationships with those in your community, and working with them to help achieve their goals, can be a big step forward. 

Our experience working with community activists on MVP has taught us that scientists can have a great impact on regulatory processes. We understand that the addition of MVP to the FRA was a concession to Senator Joe Manchin, III, of West Virginia in exchange for his support on other parts of President Biden’s climate agenda. However, we worry that such a sweeping provision that bypasses all regulatory processes establishes a dangerous precedent that threatens to silence the voice of local communities and scientific evidence in future endeavors. Preserving community and scientific voices is absolutely critical in the context of ongoing discussions around the use of permitting reform to accelerate clean energy initiatives. With several projects in development across the United States that will have significant implications for the global fight against climate change, we believe it is more important than ever that scientific evidence, expertise, and opinions are not lost.

Trisha Vaidyanathan is a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University and co-leads the Virginia Scientist-Community Interface Mountain Valley Pipeline Team. She is passionate about science communication and contributing to science-based policy solutions that protect the environment and human health.

Jane Remfert is a PhD candidate in the Integrative Life Sciences PhD program at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-leads the Virginia Scientist-Community Interface communications team where she works to make science accessible to community partners and decision makers.

Hannah Mast is an environmental sciences PhD candidate at the University of Virginia and president of the Virginia Scientist-Community Interface where she works to provide scientific expertise for community-driven activism.

Alissa Ganser is a Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences PhD candidate at Virginia Tech and co-leads the Virginia Scientist-Community Interface Mountain Valley Pipeline Team. She is an advocate for threatened aquatic fauna and vulnerable environments within the community.

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