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    MVP regains permit to pass through the Jefferson National Forest

    May 17, 2023 - Laurence Hammack The Roanoke Times


      ROANOKE — Construction of a natural gas pipeline through the Jefferson National Forest, held to a near standstill since 2018 by litigation, received its latest approval Monday from the U.S. Forest Service.

      The permit, issued for the Mountain Valley Pipeline's 3.5-mile path through the forest in Giles and Montgomery counties, is a step toward the company's goal of completing construction by the end of this year.

      However, the $6.6 billion project still must receive authorizations from other government agencies — and survive legal challenges from environmental groups — if it is to avoid additional delays.

      In an announcement late Monday, the Forest Service said it approved amendments to its Land and Resource Management Plan to allow the massive buried pipeline. But work in the national forest, which will include boring a tunnel under the Appalachian Trail at the top of Peters Mountain, cannot start until Mountain Valley has other permits in hand.

      "We maintain that the Mountain Valley Pipeline cannot be built through the Jefferson National Forest without lasting damage to sensitive forests, habitats and waters," said Jessica Sims, Virginia field coordinator for Appalachian Voices.

      "Amending a forest plan 11 times to accommodate a ruinous project on federal land is unacceptable," Sims said.

      Siding with environmental groups, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has twice thrown out earlier Forest Service approvals for the pipeline, first in the summer of 2018 and again in the winter of 2022.

      Each time, Mountain Valley has obtained a new permit. The latest permit issued Monday follows a year of additional review by the agency and an updated environmental impact statement.

      The statement takes into account newly listed protected species and other issues that were identified by the Fourth Circuit when it struck down the second permit last year, according to the Forest Service.

      The Forest Service said it considered significant public input that consisted of 359 comment letters, roughly 9,100 forms and several petitions. Appalachian Voices has said that more than 30,000 individuals and organizations oppose the pipeline's route through the forest.

      A spokeswoman for Mountain Valley called the approval "a notable step forward in completing this critical infrastructure project." The company now expects the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to soon issue a right-of-way permit, Natalie Cox wrote in an email.

      Last year, just two weeks after it invalidated the then-existing permit for Mountain Valley to pass through the Jefferson National Forest, the Fourth Circuit dealt the company another setback — rejecting a biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that found construction was not likely to jeopardize endangered and threated species.

      After additional evaluation, the Fish and Wildlife Service came to the same conclusion in March. The following month, environmental groups went back to court, asking the Fourth Circuit to review the Fish and Wildlife's finding for what will be the third time.

      Appalachian Voices and about a dozen other environmental and community groups that filed suit are asking the appellate court to stay construction while the case is pending.

      Citing Mountain Valley's stated goal of finishing the long-delayed pipeline by the end of this year, the groups argue in court papers that "without a stay, the pipeline may very well be completed before this petition is resolved."

      The resumption of grading, trenching and steam crossings will increase sediment loads in nearby streams that will harm protected species of fish, and the felling of trees endangers bats, the groups argue in their request for a stay.

      In rejecting the Fish and Wildlife Service's finding last year, the Fourth Circuit warned an agency "may not press on the gas" when "a species is already speeding toward the extinction cliff."

      Attorneys for Appalachian Voices wrote that "the agency's foot remains firmly on the pedal" in a 24-page brief asking the Fourth Circuit to again intervene.

      The pipeline's route passes through the habitats of five protected species: the endangered Indiana bat, the threatened northern long-eared bat, the endangered Roanoke logperch, the endangered candy darter and the threatened Virginia spiraea, a flowering shrub native to southern Appalachia.

      Mountain Valley argues that government agencies have devoted six years of "careful study" to ensure the survival of wildlife and plants along the pipeline's 303-mile path through West Virginia and Virginia.

      Environmental groups "want to kill the Mountain Valley Pipeline … regardless of the consequence to bipartisan national energy policy or the impact of further delay on the environment and landowners," attorneys for the company wrote in arguing against a stay.

      A decision is expected in the coming weeks.


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