The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to grant a right of way, and the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to allow a right of way and construction through the Jefferson National Forest after both were challenged by a coalition of citizen and environmental groups.
“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,” Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote in the 44-page decision that Judges Roger Gregory and William Traxler joined.
Those decisions to green-light construction violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Mineral Leasing Act and the National Forest Management Act, the group, which includes the Sierra Club, Wild Virginia and Appalachian Voices, argued.
Specifically, the decisions threatened impacts to sedimentation and the interior forest, Nathan Matthews, a lawyer for the Sierra Club, argued in court in May.
When it’s built, the underground pipeline will run 300 miles from Wetzel County, West Virginia, to Pittsylvania County, Virginia. The project will require a 75-to-125-foot right of way for construction, and a permanent 50-foot right of way. EQT Corporation, the project’s parent company, had promised a late 2018 in-service date, but announced this week that the project would actually be done in the first quarter of 2019 instead.
Now, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service will have to reevaluate their decisions, essentially forcing construction out of the Jefferson National Forest in the meantime.
“Today’s decision from the federal appeals court upholds the principle that agencies responsible for protecting the public’s lands and resources must conduct thorough and honest reviews and reject proposals that would harm our interests,” David Sligh, Conservation Director of Wild Virginia, said.
Construction in the Jefferson National Forest only amounts for about “one percent of the overall project route,” Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, said Friday. She said Mountain Valley Pipeline was evaluating the court’s decision, and noted that the court didn’t completely side with the environmental groups.
Neither the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management responded to requests for comment Friday.
“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,” Cox said in an email. “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.”
In June, developers for Mountain Valley Pipeline asked for and received an extension to continue cutting trees in the Jefferson National Forest, claiming protesters had gotten in their way.
Note: This article previously appeared in The Charleston Gazette.