RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — A permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to cross two national forests, including parts of the Appalachian Trail, was thrown out Thursday by a federal appeals court that harshly criticized regulators for approving the proposal.
Photo of the 'March to the Mansion' of protesters against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in 2016 : Chesapeake Climate Action Network
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond blasted the U.S. Forest Service for granting a special use permit to build the natural gas pipeline through parts of the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests, and granting a right of way across the Appalachian Trail.
"A thorough review of the record leads to the necessary conclusion that the Forest Service abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources," Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote for the panel in the unanimous ruling.
The court said the agency had "serious environmental concerns" about the project that were "suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company's deadlines."
The ruling also quoted "The Lorax" by Dr. Seuss, saying the Forest Service is trusted to "speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues."
About 21 miles of the 600-mile-long project are located on National Forest Service lands, including where it will cross the Appalachian Trail.
The Forest Service said at the time of approval that construction of the pipeline would impact approximately 430 acres of National Forest System lands during construction, but restoration after construction would bring the impact acreage to 214 for long-term operation.
Prior to lawsuits over the decision, pipeline construction in the forestland was supposed to begin by April 2018, falling in line with the original timeline to have the pipeline transporting natural gas by the end of 2019.
A month before the 2017 Forest Service decision, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an environmental impact statement, detailing the potential impacts of the entire 604-mile-long route, including the portion that cross 5.1 miles of the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, and 15.9 miles of the George Washington National Forest in Virginia.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Sierra Club, Virginia Wilderness Committee and other environmental groups. Patrick Hunter, a staff attorney for the center, said the ruling is a "huge problem" for Dominion.
"Their whole route is designed to cross the Appalachian Trail at this one location," Hunter said.
"That means this pipeline — as they've designed it — is not a viable project at this point."
A Dominion Energy spokesman said the company is reviewing the ruling and had no immediate comment.
The natural gas pipeline would run through parts of West Virginia, North Carolina and Virginia.
The 4th Circuit previously vacated a permit issued by the Park Service that would have allowed the pipeline to pass underneath the Blue Ridge Parkway. Dominion Energy later submitted a revised permit application, approved by the service.
The full statement from Atlantic Coast Pipeline spokesperson Aaron Ruby can be found below:
We strongly disagree with the court’s ruling. The court’s decision is at odds with the consensus of the U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service. All of these agencies agree that the Forest Service has the full legal authority to approve the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s crossing of the Appalachian Trail (AT). Under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, for decades 56 other oil and gas pipelines have operated across the AT. This opinion brings into question whether or not these existing pipelines can remain in place.
With this decision, the Fourth Circuit has now undermined the judgment of the dedicated, career professionals at nearly every federal agency that has reviewed this project.
We are immediately appealing the court’s decision to the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. If allowed to stand, this decision will severely harm consumers and do great damage to our economy and energy security. Public utilities are depending on this infrastructure to meet the basic energy needs of millions of people and businesses in our region.
We are confident we will prevail on appeal. Opponents’ tactics in the courts are not doing anything to provide additional protection of the environment. They are only driving up consumer energy costs, delaying access to cleaner energy and making it harder for public utilities to reliably serve consumers and businesses.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has been the most thoroughly reviewed infrastructure project in the history of our region. No other project in our region’s history has been developed with greater attention to the environment, including the national forests and the Appalachian Trail.