RICHMOND — Federal regulators on Monday allowed construction to resume on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in North Carolina and West Virginia after U.S. agencies reissued two critical permits that a federal appeals court had vacated last month.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission lifted the stop-work order it imposed on Aug. 10 on the 600-mile pipeline. It had imposed the order in response to a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that tossed out permits allowing the project to cross the Blue Ridge Parkway and affect the habitat of endangered or threatened animal species.
The decision applies only to work on the pipeline in North Carolina and West Virginia. Construction has not begun in Virginia because the project’s state water quality permit depends on approval of erosion and sediment control plans that remain under regulatory review.
Dominion Energy Inc., lead partner on the $5.5 billion project, said the order also won’t immediately affect portions of southeastern North Carolina hit hardest by Hurricane Florence, including the Fayetteville and Lumberton areas.
“We haven’t even started work in those areas, and obviously won’t until conditions improve and it’s safe to begin work there,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said Monday.
The National Park Service reissued a right-of-way permit on Friday for the 42-inch natural gas pipeline to cross beneath the Blue Ridge Parkway between Augusta and Nelson counties. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a new biological opinion on Sept. 11 that affirmed the project would not jeopardize the existence of more than half a dozen endangered or threatened species in its path.
“Construction activities along project areas which had previously received a notice to proceed may now continue,” said Terry L. Turpin, director of the commission’s office of energy projects.
Late last month, Turpin authorized construction to resume on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, weeks after the commission halted work on the 303-mile project in response to a 4th Circuit decision that vacated its permit from the U.S. Forest Service to cross national forest lands.
Environmental groups opposed to the project plan are considering their next step, such as asking the 4th Circuit to throw out the revised permits, as it did the original permits in a ruling on Aug. 6 that led to the stop-work order.
They accused the Trump administration of doing little to address the concerns raised by 4th Circuit Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory, whose opinion set high standards for the federal agencies in permitting a high-pressure natural gas pipeline in environmentally sensitive and scenic areas.
“Rather than taking the time to address the major problems we have seen in federal agencies’ reviews of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, these agencies continue to rush through a rubber-stamp process that ignores legal requirements — not to mention the public interest,” said D.J. Gerken, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center who represents the Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and the Virginia Wilderness Committee.
“Pressure from the utilities that stand to benefit from this project and the Trump administration produced flawed permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline the first time around, and the administration’s desire to push approvals through for pipeline developers appears unchanged,” Gerken said.
Dominion said Monday that it is “mobilizing our crews immediately to resume construction as authorized.”
But the company acknowledged the remnants of Hurricane Florence could affect construction in North Carolina and West Virginia, the only states where it had already been authorized by the states to proceed.
“We are closely monitoring weather conditions across the project footprint and will of course only resume work in areas where it is safe to do so and where weather conditions permit,” Ruby said.
Other than tree clearing on parts of the route, work has not begun on the pipeline in Virginia because the state water quality permit requires prior approval of detailed plans for controlling runoff.
Sediment runoff has been a major concern in construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline through Southwest Virginia, which faces heavy rains and potential flooding from what’s left of Florence as it moves north from the Carolinas.
Dominion hailed the actions by the National Park Service and the Fish & Wildlife Service for “promptly addressing” the concerns raised by the 4th Circuit ruling on Aug. 6 and subsequent federal stop-work order.
“The agencies have reaffirmed that the project does not threaten any federally protected species and is consistent with the public use of the Blue Ridge Parkway,” Ruby said.