The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has suspended a permit allowing the Mountain Valley Pipeline to cross more than 500 streams and wetlands in Southwest Virginia.
The action comes three days after a similar permit for West Virginia water crossings was vacated by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Uncertainty about the process prompted the corps to pull the Virginia permit to “await clarity on this issue,” William Walker, chief of the regulatory branch of the corps’ Norfolk division, wrote in a letter Friday to Mountain Valley officials.
“Effective immediately, you must stop all activities being done in reliance upon the authorization under the NWP,” the letter stated, referring to a Nationwide Permit 12 authorization that was issued to Mountain Valley in January.
Mountain Valley recently stepped up work digging trenches along stream bottoms to bury its natural gas pipeline, and the suspension marked the latest in a number of setbacks for the $4.6 billion project.
Although stream crossing work is now paused, a company official expressed confidence Friday that new permits will be issued in time for the pipeline to be completed on schedule.
“MVP does not expect additional delays to its fourth quarter 2019 targeted in-service date as it continues other construction activities along the route,” Natalie Cox wrote in an email.
The permitting process for stream crossings involves two divisions of the Army Corps, one that covers Virginia and one for the southern part of West Virginia.
Friday’s suspension came at the request of lawyers for Appalachian Mountain Advocates, who represented the Sierra Club and other conservation groups in the successful legal challenge of the West Virginia permit. A similar court action for the Virginia part of the pipeline is pending.
But as concerns about muddy runoff and other environmental risks from construction grew, the groups sought an immediate suspension of a federal authorization they describe as inadequate to protect clean water.
Since work on the 303-mile pipeline began in the spring, environmental regulators in the two states through which it will pass have issued about a dozen notices of violation, informing the company of problems with its erosion and sediment control measures.
“The immediate halt of construction in Virginia and West Virginia is important to the landowners in the pipeline’s path who have carried the burden of experiencing MVP’s faulty construction practices and damages to numerous waterways this year,” said Lara Mack of Appalachian Voices, one of the groups that joined the Sierra Club in the case.
“Their suffering is especially egregious due to the utter lack of evidence that more pipeline capacity is even needed in our region.”
With the Army Corps’ action on Friday, Mountain Valley no longer has permission to proceed with a key part of construction: channeling through streams, rivers and wetlands to forge a path for a 42-inch diameter steel pipe that will traverse steep slopes and scenic landscapes through the New River and Roanoke valleys.
On Tuesday, it was the West Virginia segment of the pipeline that came under scrutiny.
A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit took the unusual step of handing down a decision less than a week after hearing oral arguments.
The Sierra Club and other conservation groups had argued that the Army Corps permit bypassed a requirement, imposed by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, that work on four major river crossings should be completed within 72 hours to limit environmental impacts.
Mountain Valley has said that burrowing under the rivers would take four to six weeks.
Now that the water is off limits, the next question raised by pipeline foes is whether work on the ground can continue.
That would be a call for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which approved the pipeline last year and is the key federal agency overseeing its construction.
Appalachian Mountain Advocates, the nonprofit law firm that won the case in West Virginia, sent a letter to FERC the next day asking it to issue a stop work order for the entire project.
The letter cited FERC’s approval of the project in October 2017, which was conditioned on Mountain Valley having all of the required permits from state and federal agencies.
With the Army Corps permits now invalidated, “FERC’s stop work order must apply to all construction along the MVP route, not just the pipeline’s water body crossings,” attorneys Ben Luckett and Derek Teaney wrote.