Federal agency reopens review of key permit for Mountain Valley Pipeline

Workers had cleared trees along the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Roanoke County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - July 26,2018)

The federal agency tasked with overseeing natural gas pipeline construction reopened the review process Wednesday for a key permit underpinning the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline.

In a letter dated Aug. 28, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that it will “reinitiate consultation” to assess the project’s impacts on four endangered or threatened species.

The move follows an Aug. 15 decision by Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC, the developer behind the project, to voluntarily suspend all construction activities that could negatively harm two freshwater fish species, the Roanoke logperch and the candy darter, as well as the Indiana bat and the northern long-eared bat.

Reinitiating consultation does not on its own stop work on the project, but it does open the possibility that the permit — which is essential to the completion of work — will be withdrawn or that regulators will impose significant new restrictions on the project.

FERC cited all four species in its Wednesday letter.

The Indiana bat was also cited in a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to overturn the Fish and Wildlife Service permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline earlier this summer.

FERC said in its Aug. 28 letter that since the original issuance of the Fish and Wildlife Service permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the candy darter has been listed as endangered and identified as inhabiting streams in the construction area. The agency also said that “new information” has emerged on the effects that sedimentation and land slips could have on the Roanoke logperch, Indiana bat and northern long-eared bat.

In response to FERC’s decision, the Sierra Club called for work on the pipeline to be halted “until a new (permit) is issued.”

The organization, along with six other environmental and conservation groups, on Aug. 21 petitioned the Fourth Circuit appeals court to review the project permit.

In a press release, Defenders of Wildlife attorney Jason Rylander called the Fish and Wildlife Service’s permit “wholly inadequate to protect imperiled species in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.”

“Further construction on the pipeline must cease while the Service conducts this necessary review of its impacts,” he said.

Natalie Cox, director of communications for Mountain Valley Pipeline, said that the company had “received and reviewed the FERC’s letter and we are encouraged that the process is moving forward.”

This story was updated to add a comment from Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC.