Democrat Christ Hurst, the delegate from Virginia’s twelfth district, which includes the city of Radford, Giles County and portions of Montgomery County and Pulaski County, is among the 22 state legislators who have released a letter urging public health officials and Gov. Ralph Northam to do all in their power to stop the Mountain Valley fracked gas pipeline from resuming construction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Directed to Health and Human Services Secretary Daniel Carey, State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver, and Governor Northam, the letter was prompted by Mountain Valley Pipeline’s recent announcement in an earnings call that it intends to bring more than 4,000 workers to a 30-mile stretch of Southwest Virginia and across the border in West Virginia to work on the pipeline.
“An influx of thousands of workers for a project whose completion will not benefit Virginians will needlessly risk accelerating the pandemic in an area of the commonwealth with already limited health care resources,” said Hurst, whose district includes the route of the proposed pipeline.
As a recent statement by Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action observed, the counties where MVP intends to resume work have limited access to Intensive Care Unit beds and a population vulnerable to COVID-19 due to higher concentrations of senior citizens, people in poverty and people with COPD and cardiovascular disease. The letter also was prompted by the fact that African American and Latinx communities in Virginia have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The clinicians assert that sending thousands of workers to a concentrated area of Southwest Virginia threatens additional harm to these communities who live near the MVP route.
Russell Chisholm, co-chair of Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights (POWHR), hailed the letter as an important show of cross-state solidarity. “It’s going to take all of us working together to confront the challenges we face. POWHR is grateful to . . . delegate Hurst for his leadership on behalf of not only their constituents but all Virginians.”
The full text of the legislators’ letter is as follows:
Dear Governor Northam, Dr. Carey, and Dr. Oliver:
“We are troubled by the recent announcement by Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) that it intends to bring more than 4,000 out-of-state workers to a concentrated area in rural Southwest Virginia and across the border in West Virginia.
“Bringing thousands of out-of-state workers to a medically underserved area of the commonwealth in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic is a dangerous undertaking that would undermine efforts to keep infection rates down and intensive care unit beds available. We urge you to take action to remove the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks by stopping MVP from proceeding.
“Though rural areas have fared better in this pandemic than dense, urban areas, as COVID-19 infections continue to spike across the country, we are concerned that rural areas might soon be confronted with a difficult and unsustainable situation. As a group of Virginia health professionals recently noted, the Kaiser Family Foundation has warned that millions of older Americans live in rural areas such as Southwest Virginia that have a shortage of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds. Indeed, Kaiser reports that Craig and Giles counties, which are in the path of the MVP, have zero ICU beds. Pittsylvania County likewise has zero ICU beds and Franklin County has only four. The entire six-county area along the MVP route has roughly 100 ICU beds. These same communities have high concentrations of older people, poor people and those with cardiovascular diseases, COPD and other conditions that place them at high risk during this pandemic.
“At the same time, we know that African American and Latinx communities are suffering much higher infection rates in this pandemic, including in Virginia. Plans to ramp up construction at this time threatens to harm minority communities who live nearby the MVP route and will be disproportionately impacted by any new outbreaks.
“In that regard, there have been recent COVID-19 outbreaks in the Roanoke area and in the New River Valley at multiple restaurants and outdoor construction sites. Bringing in 4,000 out-of-state workers who often will eat in local restaurants and use temporary housing maintained by local residents could very well lead to more outbreaks and increased strain on local health resources.
“The dangers posed by MVP’s staffing plan underscores why Virginia infrastructure projects during the COVID-19 pandemic must focus on keeping workers safe, not exposing more workers to unnecessary dangers. Virginia became a national leader in adopting COVID-19 worker safety requirements last month. However, enforcement of these Virginia protections, which may exceed industry standards, becomes significantly more difficult when dealing with an out-of-state business owner brought here as a subcontractor.
“This is not the time to make a bad situation worse. In October of 2019, the commonwealth entered into a consent decree – and fined MVP more than $2 million – in a case involving more than 300 violations of Virginia’s environmental laws and regulations. Recently, the commonwealth assessed $86,000 in fines for additional violations that occurred even when construction was paused.
“As a result of federal court decisions, MVP has lost permits required under the Endangered Species Act, as well as permits required to cross the more than 1,200 water bodies along the route. These are precisely the same permits that were lost by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline before Dominion Energy announced on July 5 that it was cancelling that project.
“We must look after Virginia workers and the communities in rural Virginia who would suffer. We urge you to do all in your power to stop MVP from proceeding with construction at any point during the COVID-19 pandemic.”