Atlantic Coast Pipeline alters route through national forests

Developers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline plan to re-route more than 10 miles of the proposed 42-inch natural gas line out of the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests, following objections over its initial route through the forests by several federal agencies.

But the planned re-route through the two national forests, which border each other along the West Virginia-Virginia line, would add 30 miles to the total length of the 564-mile pipeline. The new route would also affect 249 landowners in Pocahontas and Randolph counties whose property was not surveyed during the planning stage for the pipeline’s initial route. In November, Monongahela National Forest Superintendent Clyde Thompson refused to sign off on the pipeline’s route through the Mon, citing inadequate soil sampling by Atlantic Coast planners needed to evaluate the effects of the pipeline on the forest ecology.

Two months later, the West Virginia field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advised against routing the pipeline across Cheat Mountain to avoid fragmenting the mountain’s remnant red spruce forest -- prime habitat for eight federally listed species.

In December, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that will ultimately approve or reject the pipeline’s development, asked pipeline planners to consider an alternate route through the national forests that would avoid environmentally sensitive areas that provide habitat for such protected species as the Cheat Mountain salamander, the West Virginia flying squirrel and the Cow Mountain salamander.

FERC also urged Atlantic Coast officials to use existing utility corridors wherever possible for the new pipeline, avoid fragmenting rare plant terrain, and to take into account the Monongahela National Forest’s long-range management plan in evaluating affected resources. FERC announced that it would delay an environmental review for the pipeline if its suggestions weren’t taken into account.

Pipeline planners have “worked with the U.S. Forest Service over the last several months to find an alternative route that avoids sensitive areas” in the two national forests, according to a statement released Friday by Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC. “As a result of these extensive consultations, next week Atlantic will formally adopt an alternative route that we believe will meet the Forest Service’s requirements and provide a viable path forward for the project. Finding a viable route through the national forests is an importnt milestone for the project and would allow FERC to continue its environmental review.”

The new route would veer south from the initial alignment near Adolph in Randolph County, veer west of Kumbrabow State Forest, cross W.Va. 15 west of Monterville, cross U.S. 219 and enter Pocahontas County near Mace, travel just south of Snowshoe Mountain Resort, cross W.Va. 28 near Dunmore and cross into Virginia and the George Washington National Forest north of Frost.

The proposed route change would reduce pipeline mileage through the Monongahela National Forest from 18 miles to about 5.

“We are contacting landowners along the alternative route to request permission to survey their properties so the route can be thoroughly evaluated,” according to the statement from Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC. “Atlantic will submit a preliminary analysis of the route to FERC next week, and plans to hold a series of public informational open houses along the route in early March.”

The proposed $5.1 billion, 564-mile pipeline would stretch from Harrison County to southeastern North Carolina, carrying natural gas recovered from wells drilled into the Marcellus Shale formation in north central West Virginia.

While the proposed route change “avoids impacts to certain species that are emblematic of this wild landscape, it will nonetheless do great damage,” said Rick Webb, coordinator of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition. “The real issue is construction of a major pipeline through the greatest concentration of remaining wild lands and intact ecosystems in the central Appalachian region.”

Webb said the new pipeline alignment does not avoid environmental issues associated with steep terrain and valleys perched on complex limestone karst formations, He said pipeline planners are now proposing to build the pipeline along a path they initially rejected for being too challenging and potential hazardous.

“The proposed ACP is unprecedented with respect to pipeline size and the level of disturbance that will be required,” Webb said. “There really is no acceptable route.”

Reach Rick Steelhammmer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169, or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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