McLEAN, Va. - An appeals court on Friday sided with environmentalists who challenged the decision by federal agencies to allow construction of a 300-mile natural gas pipeline on a swath of national forest.
The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond cancels permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service allowing the Mountain Valley Pipeline to cut through the Jefferson National Forest.
"This is very positive news, but it's not like big time celebration because that doesn't mean that they can't construct everywhere else that's not forest," Preserve Montgomery County Chair Lynda Majors said.
It's unclear if Mountain Valley Pipeline can re-route around the forest land. Local pipeline fighters hope this may signal the end of the entire project.
"If they can't cross the forest land with the pipeline, I don't know how they get it to Virginia," Preserve Montgomery County Coordinating Committee Member Irene Leech said. "So for the people from Roanoke and Franklin and so forth, if this really were to hold, this could be the thing that keeps the pipeline from being built."
The judges' ruling accuses the agencies of ignoring environmental regulations in approving the project.
"MVP's proposed project would be the largest pipeline of its kind to cross the Jefferson National Forest. 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," wrote Judge Stephanie Thacker, an Obama appointee.
The Sierra Club filed the suit, backed by numerous local environmental groups.
"We have known all along that Mountain Valley's optimistic statements about their abilities to protect Virginian's water were implausible," Sierra Club Senior Attorney Nathan Matthews said. "It's refreshing to see the court apply some much needed scrutiny to that claim."
Chief Judge Roger Gregory, initially nominated by Bill Clinton and re-nominated by George W. Bush, and William Traxler, a Clinton appointee, joined in the opinion.
The 42-inch diameter pipeline would run from near the northern panhandle of West Virginia down to southside Virginia. Construction of the underground pipeline would require a right of way ranging from 75 to 125 feet in width.
Southwest Virginia pipeline fighters are thankful for the decision and know there is still a long way to go.
"We know that this will probably be appealed, but the fact that the court case was won on pretty much all of the points that were important and that it was unanimous certainly gives us a boost."
Among the issues cited by the circuit court in Friday's ruling is the potential for the project to dump excess sediment into nearby waterways. According to the court's 44-page ruling, the Forest Service initially expressed concern about excess sedimentation in several draft proposals submitted by pipeline officials, but withdrew its concerns after Mountain Valley Pipeline said the issue could delay or even derail the entire project.
The ruling also discusses the difficulties involved in rerouting the pipeline to go around the 3.6-mile stretch of the Jefferson Forest through which the project is currently routed. Several alternative paths reduce the stretch of impacted forest, but increase the length of the overall project by as much as 20 miles and impact hundreds of other parcels of land.
The pipeline has prompted protests from environmentalists. Some protesters have climbed into trees on the pipeline's path and chained themselves to construction equipment.
Pipeline developers had already started building some stretches and had hoped to complete work by the end of the year, but faced delays even before Friday's ruling. Earlier this week, NextEra Energy, one of the pipeline's developers, told shareholders that construction would continue into 2019.
The Sierra Club, one of the environmental groups that brought the lawsuit, hailed Friday's ruling and said all pipeline construction inside Jefferson National Forest should come to a halt. A pipeline spokesman had no immediate comment Friday.
The Bureau of Land Management declined to comment on the ruling. The Forest Service referred questions to the Justice Department, which said it's reviewing the decision.
Local pipeline fighters are also eagerly awaiting the decision of another appeal. It's based on the same merits of this case, but instead deals with work on private land. They hope if the erosion was too much on federal land it will be too much on their private land as well.
"This has been a really long fight, but we believe in this," Majors said. "We believe in where we live so much and that water is so important for sustenance of everybody's life."
10 News received this statement from MVP spokeswoman Natalie Cox:
"We are evaluating the court’s decision, which rejected many of the claims raised by the petitioners and largely upheld BLM’s and the Forest Service’s compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. The court also concluded that the Forest Service did not fully explain its rationale on sedimentation impacts and that BLM did not address the impracticality of different alternative routes. The court remanded these decisions to the Forest Service and BLM for further consideration. 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."
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