A federal appeals court has opted not to delay construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, moving the project one step closer to a start in Southwest Virginia.

In an order Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied a request for a stay sought by Appalachian Voices and five other conservation groups.

The organizations had argued that cutting trees, clearing land and digging ditches for the natural gas pipeline would cause “irreparable environmental harm” to pristine lands long before the appellate court has time to consider their underlying claim — that a federal agency should never have approved the project in the first place.

But the groups “have not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending court review,” a three-judge panel wrote.

Meanwhile, Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox said Monday that preliminary work “is expected to begin any day” in West Virginia, where the 303-mile buried pipeline would originate before making its way through the Roanoke and New River valleys.

Work on access roads and construction yards in five West Virginia counties received a final go-ahead Jan. 22 from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Although Mountain Valley has requested permission from FERC to start construction in Virginia — on parts of the pipeline in Giles, Montgomery, Franklin and Pittsylvania counties — the agency has yet to act.

Before issuing what’s called a notice to proceed, FERC must examine each segment of construction along the pipeline’s route to ensure that it meets all conditions of its earlier approval of the project.

Attorneys for Giles County contend that Mountain Valley has yet to satisfy a number of requirements, including submitting plans for minimizing the pipeline’s impact on the Greater Newport Rural Historic District.

Plans to address environmental impacts are also incomplete, the county said last week in a filing that urged FERC to deny Mountain Valley’s request for a notice to proceed.

The company’s self-imposed deadline to begin tree-cutting and other preliminary work by Feb. 1 came and went last week as it continued to seek final approvals from the federal government and the state of Virginia, which is considering an erosion and sediment control plan.

Further complicating things for Mountain Valley, a federal judge last week rejected the company’s request for immediate entry onto nearly 300 properties where landowners are fighting the pipeline.

Although the laws of eminent domain allow the company to obtain forced easements, Judge Elizabeth Dillon said it must first provide more information about the values of the properties so an appropriate bond can be set.

In a court filing Friday, Mountain Valley said it expects additional appraisals and surveys of the land to take several weeks and plans to submit those documents on a “rolling basis.”

Company officials said they hope to begin work on the pipeline in time to have it running by the end of the year.

The 42-inch diameter pipeline will serve a growing market for natural gas, FERC found in approving the project last year.

That decision is being challenged by Appalachian Voices and other environmental groups. A petition for review filed in December asserts that FERC lacked sufficient evidence on which to base its determination of a public need, and that it failed to take into account the project’s environmental impacts.

But with the request for a stay denied, it’s unclear whether the case can be resolved before the pipeline is already built.

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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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