A Little Fish and a Very Big Pipeline

Roanoke logperch (top) Roanoke River flowing through the Wasena neighborhood of Roanoke, Virginia, USA (bottom)

The Roanoke logperch lives in the pebble stream bottoms of the Roanoke river tributaries. A small green and yellow fish, known mostly to people local to the Roanoke Valley watershed, it’s a bottom dweller that lays its eggs and makes its home in stream beds. The logperch officially became endangered in 1989 after several large reservoirs and dams built in the 1950s and 1960s dramatically reduced its population. Today this endangered species faces yet another threat to thriving in the Roanoke Valley watershed — the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP).

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a proposed 42” pipeline stretching between West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. The MVP began construction in March 2018. Although the joint venture building the pipeline, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC, expected to complete its project by the end of 2018, construction has faced serious opposition and several critical legal challenges. One key lawsuit regarding the fate of this small fish is over a permit issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS).

In their own dossier on the logperch, the Fish & Wildlife Service writes that, “Small logperch populations could go extinct with minor habitat degradation,” and “all the populations are small.” And yet, in 2017, the FWS issued a permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline to construct their pipelines through the sensitive habitat of the logperch. The entire pipeline is proposed to cross the streams, creeks, and rivers in southwest Virginia over one thousand times.

One of the greatest threats to the logperch is sediment runoff from the construction sites. The FWS itself writes, “Adults usually inhabit the main body of stream pools, runs, and riffles and select areas with exposed, silt free gravel substrate.” But the silt and sediment running off the pipeline construction zones can fill the bottom of the creek beds. In many places, what was once a pebbly, rock bottom has become like a sandy beach. And in some places, miniature sandbars poke out of the water, ultimately making it uninhabitable for the logperch.

On October 18th of this year, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a stay of the permit. The court ruled that the Fish & Wildlife Service had failed to set any enforceable limits of how many of the logperch could be “taken,” a legal reference to the fish killed in the process. The permit gives instructions to the company to not take “too many” endangered species, without any actual numbers or limits. The court opinion rules that the FWS permit, “consists of a series of illogical or unexplained assumptions and unsupported conclusions.” Thus, the Fourth Circuit put a stay on the permit pending a full review by the court.

Several days after the court issued its stay, the Mountain Valley Pipeline company received a stop-work order from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The company is permitted to “stabilize” their work sites for the winter, and for the foreseeable future while the permit is suspended.

The MVP was scheduled to complete construction at the end of 2018. Yet two key permits had already been pulled prior to this one. The company appears to be wrapping up construction for the next several months as the Fish & Wildlife Service, along with the Army Corps and Forest Service, head back to the drawing board to draft new permits. Though construction on the pipeline has been temporarily paused, the fate of the endangered logperch, and so many other places threatened by the pipeline, remains unclear.

Laura Cross, RCC Fellow. Laura is a recent graduate of the University of Virginia where she became involved in the fight against the pipelines and fossil fuels in Virginia. Laura’s background includes organizing teach-ins and student trips to areas in the Blue Ridge Mountains impacted by the pipeline.




Court Opinion: https://www.sierraclub.org/sites/www.sierraclub.org/files/uploads-wysiwig/MVP%20Motion%20for%20Stay%20%281%29.pdf