The on-again, off-again pace of building the Mountain Valley Pipeline is off again.
A temporary administrative stay of stream-crossing permits was issued Friday by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In a brief order, the court said the delay — which was requested Thursday by conservation groups concerned about environmental damage from the massive natural gas pipeline — will remain in effect until it has time to consider a full stay that was sought earlier.
“Our streams and wetlands get at least a temporary reprieve from MVP’s destruction,” said David Sligh of Wild Virginia, one of eight environmental groups fighting the pipeline in court.
After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reissued the permits Sept. 25 and a stop-work order was lifted last week, Mountain Valley said it would resume construction “in the coming days.”
While burrowing the 42-inch diameter pipe under nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands is now back on hold, it was unclear whether Mountain Valley is free to resume clearing the right of way and digging trenches to bury the pipe in upland areas.
Asked Friday whether any such work had begun, Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox did not answer directly.
“With MVP’s upland construction now scheduled to begin, and as we receive additional information” about other areas being cleared for work, “MVP will continue to evaluate its current construction plans, budget and schedule,” Cox wrote in an email.
Observers have not seen any heavy equipment being moved back to construction zones, according to Russell Chisholm, co-chair of the anti-pipeline Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights coalition.
The most recent report filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by environmental monitors, which covered the week of Sept. 27 through Oct. 3, did not list any construction in its “Summary of Activities” section.
Although Mountain Valley has regained two of three sets of key permits that were set aside by legal challenges, continued delays raise questions about whether it will meet its often-stated goal of completing the 303-mile pipeline by early next year.
In a weekly report released Monday, an investment banking firm that has been tracking the project said that if a stay was not granted, it expected work to be finished by mid-2021. “If the opponents successfully secure a stay, this timing could slip” to the third quarter, Height Capital Markets stated.
On Oct. 9, FERC allowed work to begin again on all but a 25-mile segment of the pipeline that includes the Jefferson National Forest.
In 2018, the 4th Circuit threw out a permit that allowed the pipeline to pass through 3.5 miles of the forest, citing concerns with erosion and sedimentation. The U.S. Forest Service is not expected to reissue the permit before year’s end.
But Mountain Valley this week asked FERC to allow it to resume construction in much of a buffer zone established around the forest. New sedimentation studies showed no danger to federal woodlands, it said. FERC had not responded by late Friday.
In her email, Cox said Mountain Valley is disappointed that the 4th Circuit stayed the stream-crossing permits temporarily.
But, she added, “we respect the court’s request for additional time to thoroughly consider the Motion for Stay and look forward to a resolution of this matter.”
To obtain a more lasting stay, Wild Virginia and other environmental groups would have to show that they have a good chance of winning their legal challenge, and that they would be “irreparably injured” if construction were allowed to proceed.
Derek Teaney, the attorney for the groups, said in court papers that the Army Corps failed to adequately consider the pipeline’s impact on endangered species, including the Roanoke logperch and the candy darter.
In a statement Friday, POWHR said it was “both heartened and guardedly optimistic” that the court will rule in favor of the project’s opponents.