A federal appeals court has denied an attempt at another delay of construction on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, allowing the bulk of the work on the project to continue.
Environmentalist groups including the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Sierra Club had asked for a stay of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion issued in September that found the project would not jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species or harm critical habitats.
But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday denied the motion to stay in a brief order, allowing construction to move forward on the 303-mile project for a natural gas pipeline system traveling from Northwestern West Virginia to Southern Virginia, crossing Wetzel, Harrison, Doddridge, Lewis, Braxton, Webster, Nicholas, Greenbrier, Fayette, Summers and Monroe counties in West Virginia.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month lifted an October 2019 stop-work order for most pipeline work after Fish and Wildlife issued its biological opinion, which environmentalist groups subsequently challenged. The FERC did not allow construction to resume in a 25-mile area encompassing two watersheds containing 3.5 miles of pipeline right-of-way that cross the Jefferson National Forest.
The 4th Circuit Court granted a stay of construction across about 1,000 waterbodies in West Virginia and Virginia earlier this month which will remain in effect until it decides whether to overturn water permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the project.
Fish and Wildlife’s finding of no significant adverse impact to endangered or threatened species remains pending.
“We believe this decision is evidence that MVP has taken the right steps to ensure that its planned construction activities will continue in a manner that best protects the environment,” said Natalie Cox, spokeswoman for Equitrans Midstream, the Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-based primary interest owner of the pipeline slated to operate it.
Cox noted in a statement that pipeline crews have been continuing forward with the project where permitted in recent weeks, including forward construction work in various upland areas along the route. The project team is continuing erosion and sedimentation control activities, and completing final restoration work along portions of the right-of-way, according to Cox.
“As we look forward to completing this important infrastructure project, we continue to invite the Sierra Club and others to discuss their issues and concerns with us through meaningful dialogue rather than pursue unproductive litigation,” Cox said.
A statement in response from Wild Virginia, a Charlottesville, Virginia-based environmentalist group opposing the pipeline and one of 11 petitioners asking for a stay of the biological opinion, pledged the case will continue.
“The Court of Appeals denied our motions to stay Fish & Wildlife Service approvals, but our determination to show the decisions were improper is not diminished,” Wild Virginia said in a statement Wednesday. “The case will continue and we believe a full review of the facts can convince the court to reject the agency’s actions.”
Wild Virginia argued the Fish and Wildlife Service failed at ensuring protections of endangered fish and bat species.
“We continue to insist that this ill-conceived project must be abandoned and will continue pursue that goal,” Wild Virginia said.
Equitrans Midstream has pushed back its targeted in-service date to the second half of 2021, and the estimated cost of the project is at least $5.8 billion, more than 50% its original price tag. The project initially was forecast to launch in the fourth quarter of 2018, but legal and regulatory challenges have repeatedly stalled the project.
In June, Mountain Valley Pipeline said total project work was about 92% complete, but the FERC estimated last month about 16% of the pipeline has not been installed. Environmentalist groups have questioned whether Mountain Valley Pipeline has accurately reported how much of the project is complete, alleging MVP has overestimated completion percentages to make regulatory approval easier and satisfy investors.