Appeals court sides with environmentalists in pipeline case

Construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline | WDBJ7 file image
Construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline | WDBJ7 file image(WHSV)
Published: Jul. 27, 2018 at 5:46 PM EDT
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An appeals court on Friday sided with environmentalists who challenged the decision by federal agencies to allow construction of a 300-mile natural gas pipeline on a swath of national forest.

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond cancels permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service allowing the Mountain Valley Pipeline to cut through the Jefferson National Forest.

The judges' ruling accuses the agencies of ignoring environmental regulations in approving the project.

"MVP's proposed project would be the largest pipeline of its kind to cross the Jefferson National Forest. American citizens understandably place their trust in the Forest Service to protect and preserve this country's forests, and they deserve more than silent acquiescence to a pipeline company's justification for upending large swaths of national forestlands," wrote Judge Stephanie Thacker, an Obama appointee.

Chief Judge Roger Gregory, initially nominated by Bill Clinton and re-nominated by George W. Bush, and William Traxler, a Clinton appointee, joined in the opinion.

The 42-inch diameter pipeline would run from near the northern panhandle of West Virginia down to southside Virginia. Construction of the underground pipeline would require a right of way ranging from 75 to 125 feet in width.

Among the issues cited by the circuit court in Friday's ruling is the potential for the project to dump excess sediment into nearby waterways. According to the court's 44-page ruling, the Forest Service initially expressed concern about excess sedimentation in several draft proposals submitted by pipeline officials, but withdrew its concerns after Mountain Valley Pipeline said the issue could delay or even derail the entire project.

The ruling also discusses the difficulties involved in rerouting the pipeline to go around the 3.6-mile stretch of the Jefferson Forest through which the project is currently routed. Several alternative paths reduce the stretch of impacted forest, but increase the length of the overall project by as much as 20 miles and impact hundreds of other parcels of land.

The pipeline has prompted protests from environmentalists. Some protesters have climbed into trees on the pipeline's path and chained themselves to construction equipment.

Pipeline developers had already started building some stretches and had hoped to complete work by the end of the year, but faced delays even before Friday's ruling. Earlier this week, NextEra Energy, one of the pipeline's developers, told shareholders that construction would continue into 2019.

The Sierra Club, one of the environmental groups that brought the lawsuit, hailed Friday's ruling and said all pipeline construction inside Jefferson National Forest should come to a halt.

Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for the pipeline project, said the ruling only affects about 1 percent of the project route, and emphasized that the court did not accept all of the arguments put forth by the environmental groups. She said the pipeline is working with the federal agencies "to evaluate the effect of the order on construction activities in the National Forest."

The Bureau of Land Management declined to comment on the ruling. The Forest Service referred questions to the Justice Department, which said it's reviewing the decision.