Federal appeals court vacates Mountain Valley Pipeline approvals

Workers this summer were laying sections of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Roanoke County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In a significant victory for environmental groups and other opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond has vacated approvals that allowed the 300-mile natural gas pipeline, which is currently under construction, to cross the Jefferson National Forest near the Virginia-West Virginia border.

In response to a case brought by a group of organizations opposed to the project, a panel of judges ruled that the U.S. Forest Service and the federal Bureau of Land Management’s decisions ran afoul of the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act and the Mineral Leasing Act.

“MVP’s proposed project would be the largest pipeline of its kind to cross the Jefferson National Forest,” the opinion says. “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.”

Nathan Matthews, an attorney with the Sierra Club, one of the groups that brought the case, called the decision “great news” for “everyone who cares about clean water and pristine forests.” The decision comes as MVP, which is planned to run from Wetzel County, W.V., to Pittsylvania County in southwest Virginia, has racked up a string of violations from environmental regulators in Virginia and West Virginia.

“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,” Matthews said. “We aren’t buying the gas industry’s claims about their water protection methods and now the courts aren’t either. MVP should immediately halt all work in the publicly-owned Jefferson National Forest.”

A spokesman for the pipeline’s developers, led by EQT Midstream Partners of Pittsburgh, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the case of the Forest Service, the court ruled that agency failed to make an independent review of the risk of increased sedimentation in the Jefferson National Forest as a result of pipeline construction. It also failed to get answers to concerns the agency itself had raised on early drafts of MVP’s plans before signing off on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Environmental Impact Statement for the project.

“We discern no evidence that the Forest Service undertook the required independent review of the EIS’s sedimentation analysis. Nor can we ascertain how the Forest Service concluded that its comments had been satisfied, especially after having
expressed such grave concerns about the sedimentation,” Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote.

David Sligh, a former Virginia DEQ engineer and conservation director for Wild Virginia, said Trump administration officials “betrayed our trust and ignored the good work of Forest Service experts, placing corporate profits above the rights of citizens who use and value these precious natural treasures.”

The decision, he added, “upholds the principle that agencies responsible for protecting the public’s lands and resources must conduct thorough and honest reviews and reject proposals that would harm our interests.”

The pipeline opponents said the decision has ramifications beyond the imminent halt of work along the 3.5 mile section of the pipeline route through the forest.

“Since the same panel of judges is also reviewing the coalition’s same arguments against Virginia’s certification of MVP pursuant to section 401 of the Clean Water Act, it could mean trouble for the MVP’s route in the entirety of Virginia,” the Sierra Club said in a statement.  A similar challenge of Virginia’s certification of the Dominion Energy-led Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which will cut through more than a dozen counties, is scheduled for a hearing Sept. 28.

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Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary.