The Mountain Valley Pipeline will be granted a new permit to cross the Blue Ridge Parkway, the first in a string of federal approvals needed before the natural gas pipeline can be completed.
In a letter filed Tuesday with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the National Park Service said it intended to issue a right of way permit for the pipeline to pass under the parkway atop Bent Mountain in Roanoke County.
Construction of that segment of the 303-mile pipeline was completed in January 2019, but Mountain Valley needs the permit to maintain and operate the transmission line.
Parkway Superintendent J.D. Lee wrote in the letter that the approval was “not a wholly new undertaking,” as the initial permit was suspended for technical reasons at the request of Mountain Valley.
The joint venture of five energy companies building the pipeline still lacks three sets of key permits — set aside after lawsuits questioned the wisdom of running such a large pipeline through the mountainous terrain of Southwest Virginia — that must be re-granted if the project is to be finished by early next year.
Mountain Valley has said it expects the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide by the end of the month whether the pipeline will jeopardize endangered species along its path from West Virginia to Pittsylvania County.
In 2017, several months before construction began, the agency found that burying the 42-inch diameter pipeline along steep slopes and under steams and rivers would not excessively harm protected fish, bats and plants.
But after new concerns about the Roanoke logperch were raised last year, a coalition of environmental groups brought a legal challenge of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision.
FERC, the lead agency overseeing construction of the $5.7 billion project, then ordered almost all work to halt while the endangered species question was reconsidered.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit was placed on hold. Still pending before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, it asserts that unexpected levels of land movement and sedimentation caused by construction poses an undue risk to two fish, the Roanoke logperch and the candy darter, and two bats, the Indiana bat and the northern long-eared bat.
Asked Tuesday about the endangered species permit, Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox wrote in an email that the company expects it “to be issued soon, and the review process remains ongoing.”
Should Mountain Valley receive a new permit, it would still need authorization to cross nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands.
And finally, the U.S. Forest Service must reconsider its approval for the pipeline to pass through the Jefferson National Forest. That permit was thrown out in 2018 by the 4th Circuit, which found inadequate protections against erosion and sedimentation.
More litigation, which has already delayed the project by two years, is likely if the permits are reissued.
Opponents hope to slow down the process to the point that Mountain Valley is forced to abandon the project, as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline did earlier this month. Mountain Valley says the pipeline is 92% done and slated for completion.
On Monday, one of the environmental groups fighting the pipeline wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asking it to deny the company a fast-tracked permit for stream and wetland crossings.
David Sligh, conservation director for Wild Virginia, said that widespread problems with muddy runoff from construction sites is enough to require Mountain Valley to obtain individual permits for each crossing, which is a much more detailed and lengthy process.
“The Corps cannot now look at the MVP project as if it has a blank slate,” Sligh said.
“Streams and wetlands are already severely damaged in many places and for the Corps to allow more pollution from waterbody crossings to be piled on top of those existing problems would be irresponsible.”