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Activists get big victories in fight against Appalachia pipelines

Both the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines are meeting a wall of resistance.

Dominion's 564-mile Atlantic Coast pipeline would come through Scott and Sally Shomo's farm, Shomo Ag LLC, just west of Staunton, Va. CREDIT: Norm Shafer/ For The Washington Post via Getty Images
Dominion's 564-mile Atlantic Coast pipeline would come through Scott and Sally Shomo's farm, Shomo Ag LLC, just west of Staunton, Va. CREDIT: Norm Shafer/ For The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Friday, ongoing environmentalist resistance efforts dealt another major setback to two pipelines under construction in Virginia when a federal agency demanded an end to all work on one of the pipelines.

In a letter sent to Dominion Energy last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) said that the company would need to stop all work on the Atlantic Coast pipeline (ACP) until the permit problems plaguing the nearly 600-mile project are resolved. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit vacated two permits for the pipeline over concerns about its impact on public lands and endangered animals.

“Accordingly, allowing continued construction poses the risk of expending substantial resources and substantially disturbing the environment by constructing facilities that ultimately might have to be relocated or abandoned,” wrote Terry Turpin, director of FERC’s Office of Energy Projects, halting the pipeline in light of the permit decisions.

Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Greg Buppert, whose organization challenged the permits, said in a statement that FERC had made “the right decision” and said the agency should get to the bottom of Dominion Energy’s “over-blown and unsupported claims” of the public benefits the company has claimed the pipeline will bring.

A spokesperson for Dominion Energy indicated that the company intends to work quickly to resolve the issues.

“We are already working with the key agencies to resolve the issues in FERC’s order so we can resume construction as soon as possible,” said Aaron Ruby. “Delaying this infrastructure will force consumers and businesses to pay higher energy costs.”

FERC’s decision marks another major hurdle for energy interests attempting to build large-scale pipelines running through the South and Appalachia. The ACP is set to span from West Virginia to North Carolina, running through Virginia in the process. Dominion Energy is the lead stakeholder for the pipeline, which would carry roughly 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas daily.

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In addition to the ACP, another major effort, the Mountain Valley pipeline (MVP), is also under construction. That pipeline would run 303 miles along a route similar to the ACP, through West Virginia into Virginia and potentially down into North Carolina. The pipeline’s capacity would be up to 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas on a daily basis.

Both the ACP and MVP have sparked uproar from environmental and health activists, in addition to furious residents. Collectively, the two pipelines would cross around 1,000 waterways and crossings in Virginia, according to a February environmental assessment. The risk of spills and contamination could threaten such areas, leaving both residents and wildlife vulnerable.

A number of pipeline opponents staged tree sit-ins throughout the spring, with many specifically opposing the MVP, which was set to run through parts of the Jefferson National Forest. Faced with dwindling food and legal threats, the bulk of the sit-ins have ended, but the activists have largely continued their efforts targeting the pipelines, while organizations like SELC and the Sierra Club have mounted legal challenges against the projects.

Racial justice groups have also entered the fray. In May, the Virginia NAACP sent a letter to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) emphasizing the historic civil rights group’s objections to both the ACP and MVP. Released last month by the group Virginia Wild following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the letter argues that communities of color will suffer disproportionately from proximity to the pipelines, which could harm drinking water.

“Consideration under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is inadequate and grossly neglects to consider the magnitude of both projects and the massive disruptions to surrounding communities and the environment that will result,” the letter reads.

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As of Friday, the Virginia DEQ had not responded to the organization, but such activist efforts nevertheless seem to be paying dividends. In addition to the ACP, the MVP has also run into trouble. Last month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), saying the agencies should not have allowed the pipeline to cut through the Jefferson National Forest and under the Appalachian Trail.

Victories of the sort activists have enjoyed this summer in their efforts to stave off the construction of these pipelines are unusual, and pipeline opponents worry they may not hold out in the long term. An investigation by ProPublica and the Charleston Gazette-Mail published Friday found that federal agencies have consistently worked to relax the rules surrounding pipeline approvals in an effort to move them forward.