Judge Rules Against Virginia County in Challenge to Pipeline Project

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CN) — A federal judge has sided with a pipeline company in a dispute over the permitting powers of local governments, a win for the beleaguered natural gas producer after several setbacks in court.

The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would stretch 600 miles between West Virginia and North Carolina to transfer natural gas throughout the region and on to ports for further sale. Backed by the region’s largest energy producer, Dominion Energy, the project has long faced legal fights and pushback from environmentalists and locals who fear the project’s impact on rural regions.

(AP Photo/Al Grillo)

Among those fights was one between Nelson County, Virginia’s board of supervisors and the pipeline company over floodplain development permits.

The county changed its own permitting rules in 2017 and has since disputed the validity of federal permits issued for the project.

But Senior U.S. District Judge Norman Moon, a Bill Clinton appointee, sided with Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC in a ruling issued Monday, finding federal law superseded the county’s effort to block the project.

“Nothing gives these floodplain regulations, as modified, the force of federal law now,” the judge wrote, referring to the county’s zoning ordinances. “Rather… because the floodplain regulations and their application through the [county] to deny Atlantic’s variance request stands as a clear obstacle to the meaning and purposes of the [Natural Gas Act], it is therefore preempted as applied to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.”

Alongside the 24-page opinion, Moon issued an order stating the pipeline company not need comply with the county’s permitting process.

Ann Nallo, a spokesperson for Dominion Energy, called the decision “another positive step for the project” in an emailed statement.

“We are pleased that the conflict between local and federal law is now resolved and that we are even closer to bringing cleaner energy to the region,” she said. “We worked cooperatively with Nelson County over many months to make sure our floodplain crossings are protective of the county’s water resources and will continue to do so going forward.”

Requests for comment from Nelson County officials were not immediately returned Tuesday.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has faced several legal setbacks halting its construction permits, most notably in the Fourth Circuit. One of the legal challenges against the pipeline went before the U.S. Supreme Court last month and the justices seemed poised to approve the project.

While dozens of local fights over land easement and permitting continue to stunt the project, which halted construction in December 2018, energy insiders are confident the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – as well as a sister project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline – will resume construction in the coming months.

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