A path across nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands was cleared Friday for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reissued three permits for the natural gas pipeline being built in Virginia and West Virginia, nearly two years after they were invalidated by a federal appeals court.
“Effective immediately, you may resume all activities being done in reliance upon the authorization” first given in January 2018, William Walker, chief of the Army Corps’ regulatory branch in Norfolk, wrote in a letter to Mountain Valley.
With the long-awaited decision, the company moved one step closer to resuming construction of a massive project that has stirred deep controversy in Southwest Virginia since it was first proposed six years ago.
Also on Friday, the U.S. Forest Service released its proposal for the 303-mile pipeline to pass through the Jefferson National Forest, an approval that was struck down in a separate ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A decision on that permit is not expected until the end of the year.
Word that Mountain Valley had received new permits to cross water bodies — either by boring under them or damming the water long enough to bury the 42-inch diameter pipe along exposed stream beds — came late Friday afternoon with a post to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s online docket.
Opponents of the pipeline were not immediately available for comment.
But in the past, they have vowed to file additional legal challenges to any new permits that may be issued by federal agencies.
In a letter Friday to the U.S. Department of Justice, an attorney for environmental groups sought an administrative stay of the stream-crossing permits.
Derek Teaney, with the nonprofit law firm Appalachian Mountain Advocates, wrote that he intends to file a legal challenge no later than Monday.
Teaney represents the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Indian Creek Watershed Association, Wild Virginia, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Appalachian Voices.
Those groups and others say that building the pipeline across steep mountainsides has scarred the landscape, polluted streams and rivers, and imperiled wildlife and plants that are listed as endangered species.
In 2018, the 4th Circuit struck down what’s called a Nationwide Permit 12, described by critics as a one-size-fits-all approach to stream crossings.
The court found that the permit overlooked a requirement by West Virginia regulators that pipeline stream crossings must be completed within 72 hours to limit environmental harm.
With Mountain Valley conceding it would take four to six weeks to span four major rivers in West Virginia, a three-judge panel of the court vacated a permit issued by the Army Corps’ Huntington district.
Two other permits in different districts — one that allowed the remaining crossings in West Virginia and the other for those in Virginia — were then suspended.
After nearly two years of review, the Corps issued new permits Friday.
The latest approval comes as FERC considers two requests from Mountain Valley: one to lift a stop-work order it issued a year ago and the second to extend by another two years an overarching certificate that expires next month.
Last October, FERC ordered that pipeline construction be ceased after yet another lawsuit claimed it would jeopardize endangered species of fish and bats in its path.
But on Sept. 4, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a new biological opinion that found the opposite.
Mountain Valley now has restored permits from two of the three federal agencies it needs to complete construction of the $5.7 billion project by early next year.
The third, from the Forest Service, moved forward Friday with the release of an environmental impact statement that addresses flaws in erosion and sediment control measures that were cited by the 4th Circuit in 2018, when it struck down the original permit.
Muddy runoff from construction sites has been a projectwide problem.
After the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality found more than 300 violations of erosion and sediment control regulations, Mountain Valley paid $2.15 million last year to settle a lawsuit filed by the state.
Following a 45-day public comment period on the environmental impact statement that runs through Nov. 9, the Forest Service expects to issue a final decision by year’s end.
Should the federal agency renew its approval, the pipeline would be allowed to pass through 3.5 miles of the national forest, in Monroe County, West Virginia, and Giles and Montgomery counties.
Those on both sides of the controversial project were sorting through a dense, nearly 200-page document Friday.
Diana Christopulos, who is leading opposition efforts for the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, said she was looking for evidence that the Forest Service had conducted a thorough soils survey “to assure that a disaster is not in the making.”
“I remain deeply concerned about the extreme danger of the route selected by MVP through the JNF, particularly the crossing of the Appalachian Trail on Peters Mountain,” she wrote in an email.
Mountain Valley plans to bore under the trail as it runs along the ridgeline, in an area that includes extremely steep slopes and is in the epicenter of an earthquake-prone area of Giles County, Christopulos said.
A spokeswoman for Mountain Valley said the company had just received the environmental impact statement and was still reviewing the document.
The statement, and instructions on how to comment on it, can be found on the quick links section of the Jefferson National Forest’s website, www.fs.usda.gov/gwj.
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