Another permit overturned for beleaguered Atlantic Coast pipeline

The endangered rusty patched bumblebee. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A mussel, a bat, a bee and a blind crustacean are once again blocking the construction of the 600-mile-long Atlantic Coast Pipeline backed by Dominion Energy.

On Friday morning, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit for the second time overturned a key project permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year. The court ruling declared that the agency had been “arbitrary and capricious” in assessing the impacts of the pipeline on four endangered species.

“In fast-tracking its decisions, the agency appears to have lost sight of its mandate under the [Endangered Species Act]: ‘to protect and conserve endangered and threatened species and their habitats,” wrote Chief Judge Roger Gregory on behalf of the three-judge panel.

Friday’s decision struck down the Fish and Wildlife Service’s September 2018 opinion declaring that the ACP would not jeopardize the survival and recovery of the endangered rusty patched bumble bee and clubshell mussel, as well as the agency’s “take limits,” or maximum number of members of a population that can be harmed by a project, for the endangered Indiana bat and Madison Cave isopod (an eyeless crustacean).

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline route. (Image via Protecthighland.org)

Gregory’s opinion devoted special attention to the agency’s finding that the ACP would not jeopardize the rusty patched bumble bee, which has been observed near the pipeline’s proposed route in Bath County. Outside of the context of the pipeline, the Fish and Wildlife Service had previously declared that the species was “so imperiled that every remaining population is important for its continued existence.”

Environmental groups hailed the decision as a victory in their fight to halt the controversial pipeline project.

“In its rush to help this pipeline company, the agency failed to protect species on the brink of extinction – its most important duty,” said a statement by Patrick Hunter, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, who argued the case against the Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club and the Virginia Wilderness Committee.

“There is no evidence that this pipeline is needed for anything other than Dominion and Duke Energy profits,” Hunter continued. “For the sake of these rare species and its customers’ wallets, it’s time for these utilities to walk away from this badly planned boondoggle.”

Friday’s decision is the second time the 4th Circuit has struck down the ACP’s Fish and Wildlife Service permit. Other project permits from the National Park Service, Forest Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have also been overturned, and construction has been stopped since December.