RICHMOND — A panel of federal judges on Friday rescinded permits for a massive natural gas pipeline to cross the Jefferson National Forest, saying two U.S. agencies had not fully vetted the project and had simply accepted assurances from the builders.
Environmentalists called the decision a major blow against the 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, which is being built from West Virginia though the rugged terrain of far Southwest Virginia. It will pass through 3.6 miles of the Jefferson National Forest along the West Virginia line in Giles County, tunneling under the Appalachian Trail.
Pittsburgh-based EQT Midstream Partners, which is leading the coalition of companies building the pipeline, said it was “evaluating the court’s decision.” Spokeswoman Natalie Cox noted that the ruling left the door open for the federal agencies to redo their permits.
“MVP is working with the agencies to evaluate the effect of the order on construction activities in the National Forest, which amounts to about 1 percent of the overall project route,” Cox said via email. The ruling did not appear to affect pipeline work outside the boundaries of the Jefferson National Forest.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled unanimously that the U.S. Forest Service and the federal Bureau of Land Management had not properly reviewed the project’s impact on the forest.
The “proposed project would be the largest pipeline of its kind to cross the Jefferson National Forest,” the judges wrote. “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. Citizens also trust in the Bureau of Land Management to prevent undue degradation to public lands.”
The judges ordered the agencies to reconsider the permits using proper procedure.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline is the smaller of two natural gas projects underway in Virginia. The other, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, is twice as long and passes through the center of the state, but not through the Jefferson National Forest. It’s being built by a coalition of companies led by Dominion Energy.
Work has been underway on both pipelines since early this year, with trees being cleared along the routes. Protesters have tried to delay the projects at every step, sometimes lashing themselves to trees or tall poles in the path of workers — including in the Jefferson National Forest.
Lawsuits against both projects are working their way through the courts. Earlier this week, the same three-judge panel handed a defeat to pipeline opponents by refusing to disallow the use of eminent domain for the companies to take property along the Mountain Valley Pipeline route.
Another court decision earlier this year temporarily halted some work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
But several environmental groups said the permits decision could have broader impact.
“We hoped this case will put a brake on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) which is running roughshod over the environmental planning process,” said Hugh Irwin, a conservationist with the Wilderness Society, one of several groups that brought the suit against the pipeline. “Significant environmental concerns were brushed aside and inadequately analyzed.”
Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality is still reviewing some aspects of the pipeline plans, although it has already issued major permits allowing the work. But opponents said Friday they hope the federal court decision will cause a more robust state review of water quality issues raised by pipeline construction.
“The State of Virginia must now act to reverse its negligent decisions and fully protect our state waters,” said David Sligh, a former DEQ official who now works with the conservation group Wild Virginia. “Specifically, the court’s holding that agencies failed to make valid findings on the threats from erosion and sediment discharges is just as valid for DEQ’s assessments.”