One week after ordering a stop to construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a federal agency is allowing some work to guard against the environmental and safety risks posed by leaving such a large project half-done.

A temporary stabilization plan submitted by developers of the 303-mile natural gas pipeline was partially approved Friday by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Some parts of the plan call for the installation of segments of steel pipes that have already been laid along trenches dug for them — a move that critics say amounts to further construction under the guise of stabilization.

“The law is clear that construction must not occur unless and until a route across the Jefferson National Forest has been approved,” attorneys for the Sierra Club and other conservation groups wrote in a letter to FERC.

The Sierra Club was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that challenged approvals by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management for a 3.5-mile segment of the pipeline to cross through the forest near the West Virginia line.

On July 27, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the approvals, finding that the Forest Service failed to address environmental concerns related to erosion and sediment and that the Bureau of Land Management did not adequately consider alternative routes in granting a right of way through public woodlands.

The court sent both decisions back to the respective agencies for reconsideration. Not knowing how long that might take, FERC on Aug. 3 ordered a temporary stop to construction along the pipeline’s entire route through West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.

“As indicated in your plan, the shutdown presents challenges for stabilization and restoration,” Terry Turpin, director of FERC’s Office of Energy Projects, wrote in a letter Friday to Mountain Valley officials.

“And we agree that there are some clear advantages to allowing some limited construction activities to proceed to prevent potential safety and environmental impacts,” Turpin wrote in approving some of the measures proposed by the company.

In areas where trenches as deep as 9 feet have already been dug for the 42-inch diameter pipe, installation should proceed so that the right of way “can be properly restored and sensitive environmental resources protected,” Mountain Valley wrote in a stabilization plan submitted to FERC on Wednesday.

Some segments of the pipe are currently resting on wooden cribbing intended to hold them in place temporarily. “Over time, the ground the cribbing rests on may be compromised via soil settlement and erosion,” the plan stated.

If the cribbing were to fail, it said, pieces of pipe could roll down a hill, posing an obvious risk to people and property.

Construction crews have yet to dig trenches or stage pipe on approximately 208 miles of the project’s route. In those areas, Mountain Valley proposes monitoring and temporary stabilization as required by state environmental regulators.

According to Nathan Matthews, a senior attorney for the Sierra Club, Mountain Valley wants to complete construction on 80 miles of pipeline — including placing the pipe in the ground for 47 miles — while the stop-work order remains in place. A Mountain Valley spokeswoman did not respond to a question about the number of miles involved, and the FERC order is silent on that issue.

“The record demonstrates that excavating and filling the pipeline trench is one of, if not the most, destabilizing elements of pipeline construction,” Matthews wrote in a letter Friday to FERC.

“These activities cannot be permitted in the name of stabilization.”

A Mountain Valley spokeswoman said FERC’s partial approval of the stabilization plan allows the Pittsburgh-based coalition of five energy companies to continue work in “the safest manner possible.”

“In addition, we remain confident that the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will be able to satisfy the Fourth Circuit Court’s requirements regarding their respective decisions related to the Jefferson National Forest,” Natalie Cox wrote in an email.

FERC has yet to take action on some parts of Mountain Valley’s stabilization plan, including for areas where the pipeline will cross through the Jefferson National Forest and under the Blue Ridge Parkway in Roanoke County.

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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