RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – The U.S. Forest Service has rejected the proposed route of a 550-mile natural gas pipeline through national forests in Virginia and West Virginia because of concerns over the project’s impact on an endangered salamander and other resources.
In a letter this week to federal regulators, the Forest Service said the builders of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline will have to consider alternate routes through the George Washington and Monongahela national forests.
Besides cow knob salamanders in Virginia, foresters also cited concerns about northern flying squirrels in West Virginia and red spruce restoration areas along the proposed 30-mile pipeline route through the national forests. The Forest Service described the two species and forestland as “irreplaceable” and said they must be considered in developing an alternate route.
The red spruce restoration area is in the Cheat Mountain area within the Monongahela. It is considered one of the most diverse bio-systems in West Virginia.
Dominion Virginia Power, Duke Energy and other energy partners have proposed building the $5 billion pipeline, one of at least two interstate pipelines that would carve a path through West Virginia and Virginia.
The pipelines are intended to deliver natural gas from the shale fields of northern West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina. The application for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
In a release, Dominion said it would continue to work with the Forest Service to find an alternate route through the national forests.
“The ACP believes that its routing specialists, in consultation with USFS officials, will find an acceptable route,” the release said.
Pipeline critics welcomed the decision and said it was clear the national forest route was a bad one.
“Dominion stubbornly persisted on a route that was identified as severely destructive from the start,” Greg Buppert, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “It is time for them to step back and truly reconsider the need for this pipeline at all.”
The habitat of the salamander cited by the Forest Service is along Shenandoah Mountain in western Virginia, between 2,000 and 4,400 feet in elevation. Pipeline builders had proposed going under the mountain to avoid any harm to endangered animals. The Forest Service rejected the idea.
“The pipeline must be routed around areas where Cow Knob salamander habitat is found,” regional foresters wrote in a letter to pipeline builders.
The Forest Service said in the letter it is “committed to cooperating with FERC and working with ACP on continued development of the project,” but it must balance “sensitive resources” and the growing demand for natural gas.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has encountered pockets of resistance along its path, primarily among residents in western and central regions of Virginia. They have cited property rights and environmental concerns.
The pipeline has the backing of governors in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. They have embraced the economic benefits of the pipeline, including new industry and jobs.