Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), facing criticism over its handling of reviews for the proposed Atlantic Coast (ACP) and Mountain Valley (MVP) pipelines, has scheduled a series of public hearings on draft water quality permits for the two projects.

DEQ has scheduled three public hearings for ACP and two for MVP, all in August. The agency is collecting comments on draft water quality certifications — issued under Clean Water Act Section 401 authority — for each project, with the comment period ending Aug. 22.

For its Section 401 permits, DEQ said its review will cover “all potentially impacted water resources related to activities that may affect water quality outside the temporary construction impacts to stream and wetland crossings” covered in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Nationwide Permit (NWP) 12 review.

In April, DEQ announced its plans to require the 401 water quality certifications for the controversial pipelines, which both intend to cross through significant portions of the state and are on similar project timetables. DEQ said requiring the 401 permits is “in keeping with Governor [Terry] McAuliffe’s commitment that the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines will be constructed in the most environmentally protective manner.”

After some took the April announcement to mean that DEQ would conduct its own reviews of the stream and wetlands crossings instead of leaving that part to the federal NWP 12 permit, the agency later clarified its plans, leading to accusations that it had backtracked. DEQ has since acknowledged a miscommunication between its technical and public affairs staff over the environmental reviews.

DEQ has come under fire for not going far enough in its review, with pipeline opponents calling for a more thorough 401 permitting process, ostensibly one to mirror that of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Last week, the Southern Environmental Law Center and 75 other environmental and advocacy groups signed a letter urging DEQ to cover the stream and wetlands crossings in its 401 permit.

“These projects will cross hundreds of sensitive waterways in Virginia, but the Corps’ nationwide permitting procedures won’t examine these crossings individually or in detail,” Greg Buppert, senior attorney with the center, said. “Virginia cannot afford to cede its Clean Water Act authority to the federal government at a time when the Trump administration is actively undermining environmental protections.

“To ensure the protection of the Cowpasture River, native trout streams and other important Virginia waters, the Commonwealth must conduct its own analysis of waterway crossings.”

The pressure on DEQ comes as Virginia prepares to elect a new governor to replace McAuliffe, a Democrat who has supported pipeline development. Democratic primary challenger Tom Perriello, who lost to Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, had made opposition to ACP and MVP a platform in his campaign.

ACP, backed by Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas, is a 600-mile, 1.5 Bcf/d pipeline designed to deliver Marcellus and Utica shale gas to meet heating and electric generation demand in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. The pipeline would start in West Virginia and travel through Virginia and North Carolina.

MVP, a 304-mile, 2 Bcf/d pipeline would similarly deliver Marcellus and Utica shale gas into the Southeast, running from West Virginia to an interconnect with the Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line (Transco) in Pittsylvania County, VA.

EQT Midstream Partners LP would operate MVP as part of a joint venture with NextEra US Gas Assets LLC, Con Edison Transmission Inc., WGL Midstream and RGC Midstream LLC.

MVP received a favorable final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) from FERC last month, paving the way for a certificate decision later this year. MVP is targeting a late 2018 start-up.

MVP spokeswoman Natalie Cox said project developers have been working closely with regulators throughout the planning process. The pipeline has already secured a 401 water quality permit from West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection, she said.

“One of our primary objectives has been to design a route with the least overall impact to landowners and communities; and to preserve and protect sensitive species, historical resources, and the environment, including streams and wetlands,” Cox told NGI. “…We continue to work diligently with the DEQ to preserve and protect Virginia’s water quality and meet the requirements of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ NWP 12 permit for wetland and stream crossings.”

ACP, which had to substantially revise its route based on feedback from the U.S. Forest Service, expects to receive an FEIS from the Commission later this summer, with plans to go into service in 2019.

“We’re confident we’ll receive all of the water quality certifications we need by this fall,” ACP and Dominion Energy spokesman Aaron Ruby told NGI. “The Army Corps and the state agencies are thoroughly reviewing the project and will ensure that we’ve met the highest standards for the protection of water quality. This will be a rigorous process. There will be extensive opportunities for public review and participation. No stone will be left unturned. At the end of the process, we’re confident the measures we’ve adopted will have met all state and federal requirements.”