A federal agency ordered a stop Friday to construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which has run into repeated problems with erosion since it began its path through the Roanoke and New River valleys.
In a letter to pipeline officials, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission cited an appeals court decision last week that reversed earlier-granted approvals for pipeline work in the Jefferson National Forest.
With construction of that 3.6-mile segment of the natural gas pipeline now on hold, FERC determined that work on the rest of the 303-mile project should not proceed.
“MVP is hereby notified that construction activity along all portions of the Project and in all work areas must cease immediately, with the exception of any measures deemed necessary…to ensure the stabilization of the right of way and work areas,” the letter stated.
The stop-work order appeared to be temporary, with FERC saying that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will likely be able to re-issue approvals that were struck down July 27 by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Even so, it marked a huge win for opponents who have been fighting the massive pipeline for the last four years.
“We have said all along that we can’t trust polluting corporations to protect our water and we’re relieved to see construction temporarily halted along the entire route of the MVP,” an attorney for the Sierra Club, which brought the legal challenge, said in a written statement.
“This order is a victory for everyone who values clean water and a wake-up call for those who think they can put profits over people,” Nathan Matthews said.
“There is no right way to build these dirty, dangerous fracked gas pipelines and we will continue to fight them until construction is stopped permanently.”
A Mountain Valley spokeswoman could not be reached for comment following the release of the letter early Friday evening.
Since April, inspections by state regulators along the pipeline’s route through West Virginia and Virginia have resulted in repeated warnings to Mountain Valley that its erosion and sediment control measures were lacking.
Despite evidence that muddy waters from construction sites were reaching streams and wetlands — and possibly private wells and public water supplies — construction of the $3.7 billion project continued full bore for the most part.
Then came last Friday’s opinion from the 4th Circuit. A three-judge panel for the court took the Forest Service to task for its “silent acquiescence” to what it termed Mountain Valley’s unrealistic claim that its erosion control measures would be 79 percent effective.
The appeals court ordered a new review of the Forest Service decision, along with a related right-of-way approval by the Bureau of Land Management.
While that process is pending, it makes no sense for pipeline construction to continue outside the national forest, the Sierra Club argued in a letter to FERC Monday asking for a stop-work order.
An order from the agency last October allowing the project to move forward was conditioned on Mountain Valley having all federal authorizations — which it no longer had after the appeals court decision.
While that point was largely procedural, the Sierra Club also pointed to practical considerations.
If, for example, the renewed approval process by the Forest Service required the pipeline to take an alternative route through the national forest, “this runs the risk that sections of the pipeline that will have been already constructed will need to be moved, adding unnecessary expense and environmental impact,” its letter stated.
A more drastic scenario, at least for Mountain Valley, would be one raised by U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem.
“If the pipeline cannot be constructed through the forest, it does not make sense to proceed with disturbing other people’s lands that may never connect to a pipeline,” Griffith said in a statement.
But there is no reason to believe the two federal agencies cannot come up with a new plan that complies with the 4th Circuit’s directive, FERC’s Office of Energy Projects Director Terry Turpin wrote in his letter to Mountain Valley attorney Matthew Eggerding.
“However, Commission staff cannot predict when these agencies may act or whether these agencies will ultimately approve the same route,” Turpin wrote.
The stop-work order ended a roller-coaster ride for those who have been following the pipeline project in recent days.
Opponents had just a few days to celebrate the 4th Circuit’s reversal of the Forest Service approvals before the same three-judge panel upheld a water quality certification by the State Water Control Board on Wednesday.
That approval was seen as more sweeping, as it applied to more than 500 crossings of streams and wetlands the pipeline would make through Southwest Virginia.
With the latest news Friday, environmental conservation groups were back in the game.
“In its arrogance, MVP thought it could treat a federal court’s rejection of Forest Service and BLM approvals as a mere speed bump that it could easily evade,” Wild Virginia said in a statement.
“Even FERC, in its zeal to enable the industry, has recognized that is an unsupportable approach.”