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Appeals court again blocks pipeline crossing through national forest

The Fourth Circuit sent federal permits for the long-beleaguered pipeline that would pass through Jefferson National Forest back to the issuing agencies for not adhering to internal review policies.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Environmental groups are hailing the Fourth Circuit's decision to roll back federal permits that would have allowed a controversial natural gas pipeline to cross protected federal lands. 

“Three billion over budget, years behind schedule, and facing mounting legal hurdles, [Tuesday's] decision makes it highly unlikely that this dirty, dangerous, and unnecessary fracked gas pipeline will ever be completed,” said Kelly Sheehan, Sierra Club's senior director of energy campaigns, in a statement following the court’s ruling, which sent federal permits approving the Mountain Valley Pipeline to cross sections of the Jefferson National Forest back to their respective agencies for further review. 

Sierra Club represented a handful of Appalachian environmental groups in an October hearing at the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit, where they continued their long fight against the beleaguered pipeline. Set to bring natural gas 300 miles from mines in West Virginia to facilities in Central Virginia, the Mountain Valley Pipeline has faced numerous legal challenges by both landowners and environmental groups since its first federal permit was issued in 2015.

Those challenges have often caused work stoppages, but the Fourth Circuit allowed construction to resume in 2019. This new decision, however, will again stifle the project's progress. 

The ruling was penned by U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanie D. Thacker, a Barack Obama appointee who found the National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management's use of adjacent sediment impact data failed to meet standards required to understand similar issues within the federal forest lands. 

“By creating a false dichotomy between the impacts of construction inside and outside the Jefferson National Forest, placing the burden on petitioners to explain the similarities between these two areas, and failing to address the USGS modeling that occurred nearby in the Roanoke River, the Forest Service and the BLM 'entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem,’” Thacker wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel, quoting her own 2018 opinion relating to another permitting issue with the project. 

Thacker also took issue with the agencies’ order of operations when they approved understream boring methods for the project's proposed water crossings. While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had said it would offer input on the proposed methods, the agencies issued the permit beforehand, a premature effort in the eyes of the appeals court.

“As a result,  the Forest Service and the BLM improperly approved the use of the conventional bore method for the four streams in the Jefferson National Forest without first considering FERC’s analysis,” Thacker wrote.

While Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC was confident the permits would stand late last year, allowing for the pipeline to begin operating by this summer, a statement from the company following Tuesday’s ruling now puts that timeline in question. 

“We are thoroughly reviewing the court’s decision regarding MVP’s crossing permit for the Jefferson National Forest and will be expeditiously evaluating the project’s next steps and timing considerations,” a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement. 

One of the plaintiffs in the case, Appalachian Voices, is hopeful the latest ruling will put an end to the project the group has been fighting for more than half a decade. 

“The Fourth Circuit has agreed with us for the second time that federal agencies failed to show that the pipeline can comply with the law,” said Peter Anderson, the group's Virginia policy director. "It is long past time for the MVP’s investors to abandon this harmful project.”

Thacker was joined on the unanimous panel by Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Roger Gregory, a Bill Clinton appointee, and U.S. Circuit Judge James Wynn, another Obama appointee.

Attempts to reach the National Forest Service for comment on the ruling were not returned by press time. 

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Categories / Appeals, Business, Energy, Environment

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