Builders of the Mountain Valley Pipeline may have found a way to cross the Appalachian Trail, but it will delay the project’s completion until the middle of next year and increase its cost to as much as $5 billion.
The disclosure was made Monday in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission by EQM Midstream, the lead partner in the joint venture.
Previously, Mountain Valley had said it would spend $4.6 billion and have the natural gas pipeline finished by the end of this year.
The latest plan involves a proposed land swap in which the U.S. Department of the Interior would allow the company to keep its current crossing of the Appalachian Trail — at the top of Peters Mountain along the West Virginia-Virginia line — in exchange for a piece of private property that Mountain Valley owns adjacent to the Jefferson National Forest, according to the filing.
Giving the land to the government would “protect one of the last segments of the trail that is currently not under federal ownership or control,” Mountain Valley said. As part of the deal, the company would be allowed to proceed with plans to tunnel under the trail to bury its 42-inch diameter pipe at the mountaintop.
The boring plan was cast in doubt in December, when a federal appeals court ruled that the Forest Service had improperly allowed a similar project, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, to cross the scenic footpath farther to the east, in the George Washington National Forest.
In that case, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service lacked authority to grant a right of way for the pipeline to cross the more than 2,100-mile trail, which is administered by the National Park Service.
Although Mountain Valley was not named in that case, legal experts said, its Appalachian Trail crossing could be jeopardized.
But if the land swap is approved, “the applicable federal agencies would grant the MVP venture an easement and right-of-way” to cross the trail at its originally planned location, which was approved in 2017 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, EQM wrote in the SEC filing.
“This exchange would effectively privatize MVP’s right-of-way across the trail, potentially avoiding the legal peril of crossing the trail on federal land” that was created by the 4th Circuit’s ruling in the Atlantic Coast case, according to a report from Height Capital Markets, an investment banking firm that has been following the project.
The SEC filing does not identify the private lands Mountain Valley hopes to exchange for the trail crossing, other than to say they “are crossed by and would benefit” the Appalachian Trail.
Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for the joint venture building the pipeline, said Mountain Valley recently purchased a 42-acre parcel of land in Giles County, when the company was evaluating alternative solutions for crossing the trail.
“Given the nature of the proposed land exchange submission, MVP will not identify other parcels at this time that will be part of the land exchange beyond the property located in Giles County, Virginia,” Cox wrote in an email.
Land records show that in March, Mountain Valley purchased three parcels of land at Clendennin Road and Pocahontas Road, a Forest Service gravel road which the Appalachian Trail follows briefly before heading up Peters Mountain.
The company paid $460,000 for the property, which was valued at $188,000, according to court records. Efforts to reach the sellers were unsuccessful, and Cox did not say whether this property is part of the swap.
The property is not far from sites on Pocahontas Road where two pipeline protesters occupied aerial blockades last year. Pocahontas Road is a Mountain Valley construction access road that leads to the top of Peters Mountain, where two other demonstrators spent several months in trees blocking tree-cutting at the spot of the Appalachian Trail crossing.
All of the protesters have since left or been removed by police.
Andrew Downs, a Roanoke-based regional director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, said Monday that he did not know enough about the proposed land exchange to comment in detail on whether it would be a fair trade.
But in general, he said, “We’re still opposed to the project, and I don’t expect any parcel of land could change that.”
The trail’s ridgetop route along Peters Mountain is “one of the most special AT experiences in both Virginia and West Virginia,” he said. “It’s one of the most beautiful spots in the Commonwealth.”
The land swap would have to be approved by several federal agencies, which is one reason Mountain Valley made official to the SEC its latest delay — which had been predicted for some time by two partners in the project and by Height Capital Markets.
Mountain Valley has run into a series of problems since starting work in February 2018 on a 303-mile pipeline that will run from northern West Virginia, through Southwest Virginia, and connect with an older pipeline in Chatham.
Permits for the pipeline to cross more than 1,000 streams and wetlands were either thrown out or suspended after a legal challenge from environmental groups. Mountain Valley says it is working to obtain new permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
At the same time, Mountain Valley must regain Forest Service approval for the pipe to cross through about 3.5 miles of the Jefferson National Forest in Monroe County, West Virginia, and Giles and Montgomery counties.
In a case that did not directly address the Appalachian Trail, the 4th Circuit ruled last July that measures to control erosion and sedimentation in the forest were inadequate.
Mountain Valley is working with several agencies to “address and resolve the few remaining permit issues” that must be resolved in order to have the project done by mid-2020, Cox said.