Prospects for a new natural gas pipeline that would span a 3.6-mile stretch of the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia are unclear after a three-judge panel ruled on Friday in favor of activists who hope to stop the project.
Construction has begun on the 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline on private land despite staunch opposition from local residents and activists who say the pipeline poses unacceptable risks to the region’s waterways.
In a unanimous 44-page ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit determined that the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately examine threats posed by the pipeline’s construction when they issued permits to the developers. In particular, the judges pointed to the risk of excessive sedimentation. Judge Stephanie Thacker noted in the opinion that the pipeline would be the largest such project to cross the Jefferson National Forest.
“American citizens understandably place their trust in the Forest Service to protect and preserve this country’s forests,” Thacker wrote, “and they deserve more than silent acquiescence to a pipeline company’s justification for upending large swaths of national forestlands.”
The $3.5-billion pipeline would extend from West Virginia to the southern portion of Virginia. It would require a right-of-way between 75 and 125 feet wide, and would cross beneath the Appalachian Trail.
Conservationists said they hope the ruling will stop the pipeline. However, the ruling does not prevent the pipeline’s proponents from seeking new permits. If the pipeline is not permitted to cross national forest land, a new route could require an additional 20 miles of pipeline, impacting many private parcels.
The pipeline’s developers had hoped to complete the project early next year.