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Federal agency halts all work on Atlantic Coast Pipeline after judges revoke permits

Trees are downed along Peters Mountain in Monroe County, W. Va, to make way for the Mountain Valley Pipeline route. (Erica Yoon/Roanoke Times/AP)

A federal agency has ordered a halt to all work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline after a panel of judges suspended two key permits for the massive project to bring natural gas from West Virginia through central Virginia.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission sent a letter late Friday to Dominion Energy, the company leading construction of the 600-mile pipeline, saying that work must stop until the permit issues can be resolved.

Earlier in the week, three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit had vacated a permit issued by the National Park Service to allow the pipeline to tunnel under the federally owned Blue Ridge Parkway, saying the agency had not explained how the pipeline fit with the its mandate to conserve public lands.

The court also vacated a permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service governing impact on endangered wildlife, saying the agency failed to set proper limits for harm to five species, including a type of freshwater clam and certain bats.

Latest action from federal judges puts further pressure on Virginia’s gas pipelines

The rulings capped a series of setbacks for the two major pipeline projects underway in Virginia. Last month, the same court revoked a permit for the separate Mountain Valley Pipeline to cross about 3.5 miles of the Jefferson National Forest, finding that the impact on the forest had not been fully reviewed.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission then stepped in to halt all work on that pipeline, as well. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, being built by a consortium of companies led by EQT Midstream Partners of Pittsburgh, is a 300-mile project that also carries natural gas from West Virginia and passes through Virginia’s far-southwest mountains.

Environmental activists say the rulings show the approval process for both projects has been hasty and flawed.

The Southern Environmental Law Center brought the challenges against both sets of permits and has urged FERC to reconsider approval for both pipelines.

“With so many unknowns remaining about this project, now is the right time for the Commission to grant rehearing and get to the bottom of Dominion’s over-blown and unsupported claims of public benefit,” SELC attorney Greg Buppert said via email after Friday’s decision.

Saturday morning, though, word went out that FERC commissioners had voted 2-1 not to grant a rehearing for the overall pipeline permit.

Builders of both pipelines, though, have said that the permit issues can be readily addressed.

“We are already working with the key agencies to resolve the issues in FERC’s order so we can resume construction as soon as possible,” said Aaron Ruby of Dominion, spokesman for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. “Delaying this infrastructure will force consumers and businesses to pay higher energy costs.”

Work on most of that pipeline had come to a halt in Virginia in March, once tree-felling season ended, as the builders await final state approval of erosion and sediment control plans. But construction had continued in West Virginia and North Carolina. Dominion also has asked FERC for permission to continue work on portions of the project, including preparation for the source of the gas supply in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.