Pipeline Construction Stops After Fourth Circuit Ruling

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Construction of a natural gas pipeline through federally-protected lands  has reportedly stopped after a Fourth Circuit panel found two federal agencies acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” during the permitting process.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline, owned by Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, a joint venture between New York’s Consolidated Edison, Pittsburgh’s EQT Midstream and others, is one of two controversial natural gas pipeline projects that have been confronted with stiff resistence from residents and environmentalists in Western Virginia.

The company, along with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, owned by Dominion Power, is seeking to bring natural gas harvested  from the Ohio Valley to the Atlantic Coast to buyers overseas.

According to the Sierra Club, the environmental group which argued against U.S. Forest Service and the Beauru of Land Management’s permitting of the project before the Fourth Circuit earlier this year, construction of the project halted within 72 hours of the appeals court vacating the two agencies’ actions.

Requests sent to Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC for confirmation on this work stoppage were not returned.

In a 44-page opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanie Thacker, an Obama appointee, said the agencies failed to follow federal law when considering the environmental impact of the pipeline’s construction when it planned to cross 3.6 miles of protected land in Jefferson National Forest.

The Sierra Club had argued the agencies failed to consider sediment and erosion data when issuing the permits and Thacker agreed saying the court “discern[ed] no evidence that the Forest Service undertook the required independent review” of the environmental impact statements.

During the permitting process the Forest Service submitted three draft statements but Thacker found the information presented in the final version of the document failed to address concerns reached in the original version.

“Indeed, the Forest Service expressed nothing but skepticism of the [sediment data] for more than three months,” she wrote. “We simply cannot conclude that the Forest Service undertook an independent review and determined  that its comments and concerns were satisfied when it shifted [two different data points] with absolutely no explanation.”

Further siding with the environmental group, Thacker found the Forest Service’s efforts to change their own forest plan to accommodate the pipeline did little to consider its mission to protect the land and instead sought to reduce soil and erosion limits for the sake of the project’s construction.

She also found the Bureau of Land Management’s permit violated federal law by ignoring alternative routes for the pipeline which would have been less invasive, such as building alongside existing pipelines.

Sierra Club lawyers were excited to find sympathy at the Fourth Circuit, especially considering the many challenges — and failures — submitted by locals which sought to stop eminent domain claims filed by the pipeline company seeking to take their land for pipeline construction.

“We have said all along that we can’t trust Mountain Valley Pipeline to protect Virginia’s water, so it’s refreshing to see the court refuse to take them at their word,” wrote Sierra Club staff attorney Nathan Matthews in a statement released after the opinion was made public. “We aren’t buying the gas industry’s claims about their water protection methods and now, the courts aren’t either.”

Friday’s opinion could also bode well for a similar challenge filed by Sierra Club against the other controversial pipeline currently in the works.

“Our case against the Forest Service’s approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline raises several of the same issues, especially with regard to the Forest Planning Rule,” wrote a spokesperson for the group in an email to Courthouse News. The group plans to release briefs in that case soon with a hearing date set for September 2018.

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