A group of environmental and climate activists have organized the Walk for Appalachia’s Future that will travel the 303 mile route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline from May 24 to June 4. The action seeks to amplify the voices of frontline Appalachian communities and others in their fight for environmental justice and renewable energy. Those participating in the walk from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia are calling for the cancellation of Mountain Valley Pipeline and the MVP Southgate extension, whose construction has already devastated parts of West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.
If completed, the pipeline would carry fracked methane gas through the region for likely export abroad. The pipeline company has already lost several permits due to environmental violations and has yet to receive others. Opponents say the pipeline project is about 55 percent complete, but with many gaps — especially where the pipeline crosses waterways.
One of the issues holding up completion is that the candy darter, a 2-inch long red, green and pale gray fish, was recently given endangered species status, and it is found in only a few areas along the route of the pipeline.
Along with the activists, Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus is walking and driving the route of the pipeline. Here she presents a talk by Autumn Crowe, program director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and local resident, who spoke to the group about the endangered candy darter and its uncertain future.
AUTUMN CROWE: Well, welcome to the beautiful Greenbrier Valley, everyone. Some of you I met last night. I’m Autumm Crowe, program director for West Virginia Rivers Coalition, and we’re at the White Sulphur Springs fish hatchery. This is where they raise the endangered candy darter, which I’m sure you’re very excited to hear about. They also raise trout for trout stockings, and they also raise endangered crayfish and mussels. I’m also on the board of the Greenbrier Watershed Association, and we are partnered with the hatchery to try to re-introduce some of the green floater mussels into the Greenbrier River. So, just a little bit about what’s going on here.
So, the candy darter was just recently listed as an endangered species, and just recently the critical habitat for the candy darter was approved. And so the habitat for the candy darter, it was once found throughout the watershed of the New River and now it’s mostly found in some of the tributaries of the New River – the Stony River in Virginia that’s proposed to be crossed by the Mountain Valley pipeline and also the Gauley River, which is critical habitat that’s proposed to be crossed by MVP, and then the upper reaches of the Greenbrier River, so the East and West forks, some of the major tributaries in the upper reaches of the Greenbrier, and then there are a couple of tributaries of the Gauley River. I don’t have all the critical habitat memorized, but that gives you some idea of where it’s still found in this region.
So, some of the main threats to the candy darter – and this is a little fish, only a couple inches long – and it needs cold, clear water to survive, in a pebbly-bottomed stream. One of the main threats to the candy darter is the hybridization with the variegate darter. It’s a similar fish, another darter species, that is commonly used as bait fish. When the fishermen were finished for the day if they had any darters left over they would often release those into the streams, and that fish, because it’s so similar to the candy darter, they would breed together and hybridize, and that made the candy darter lose its colors. So that’s one of the biggest threats to the species, that the colors of the candy darter are being bred out.
Other threats to the candy darter are sedimentation, and you know the MVP causes significant sedimentation and erosion in the streams that it crosses, so that is another major threat to the candy darter, and one of the current lawsuits that are in place around the MVP. So, West Virginia Rivers Coalition is a party on that lawsuit and basically is making sure that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in their biological opinion, considers all of the impacts of the MVP to the candy darter species.
The pipeline permitting process requires that any construction through endangered species habitat requires a biological opinion from the Fish & Wildlife Service, and in that biological opinion they have to determine whether the species would be impacted by construction. And if they determine the species could be impacted, then the pipeline construction company – Mountain Valley Pipeline in this case – would have to get an incidental take permit, if they kill off some of the species.
The Army Corps of Engineers cannot issue the 404 permit without the Fish & Wildlife Service biological opinion. So, until they issue a new biological opinion, the Army Corps cannot issue the 404 permit. But both states have already issued their 401s, so that is currently before the Fourth Circuit court.