The Mountain Valley Pipeline inched closer Friday to the Jefferson National Forest, where plans call for it to pass through 3.5 miles of woodlands and 90 feet under the Appalachian Trail.
An environmental impact statement released by the U.S. Forest Service supported running a buried, 42-inch diameter pipe through the forest to transport natural gas at high pressure.
A final decision is expected early next year for a portion of the pipeline in Giles and Montgomery counties and Monroe County, West Virginia.
Building the pipeline is “consistent with the Forest Service’s mission,” the 315-page document stated at one point. It later added that under numerous laws and regulations governing all national forests, “the implementation of projects related to oil and gas development and transport is permissible.”
However, the magnitude of Mountain Valley’s plans for a 303-mile pipeline would not normally be allowed under a resource management plan for the Jefferson National Forest
So the environmental impact statement recommends 11 amendments to the forest’s plan — changing standards for the impacts on soils, old-growth forests and scenic integrity — to make it conform to Mountain Valley’s blueprint.
“As mountain defenders and trail protectors, we won’t soon forget this parting gift to the gas industry,” said Russell Chisholm, co-chair of the anti-pipeline Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights coalition.
The pipeline’s route through the forest was approved three years ago, but the decision was thrown out in 2018 by a federal appeals court. In siding with environmental groups who challenged the permit, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals chastised the Forest Service for being too accepting of Mountain Valley’s assurances that erosion and sedimentation would not be a major problem.
Muddy runoff, both in the forest and elsewhere on the pipeline’s mountainous route, has complicated construction from the start.
Although the supplemental report released Friday was based on additional research, including a more detailed analysis of the soils on the forest floor and how to protect them, its final conclusion was essentially the same as in 2017.
Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox said the revised report will not require any key changes to the company’s plans.
“We had the benefit of incorporating all lessons learned in developing our current plans and our previous review of the sedimentation analysis by numerous federal agencies,” Cox wrote in an email.
Construction of the pipeline, which had been stalled for more than a year, resumed in October after federal regulators lifted a stop-work order as multiple legal obstacles began to clear for Mountain Valley.
Approval from the Forest Service was one of three sets of federal permits for the $6 billion project that had been struck down or stayed. Since then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reaffirmed its opinion that construction will not jeopardize endangered species, and the Army Corps of Engineers has issued new permits for the pipeline to cross nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands.
The stream-crossing permits were stayed by the 4th Circuit last month, after a new lawsuit was filed. But Mountain Valley says it still plans to have the project completed by the second half of 2021, allowing it to distribute 2 billion cubic feet a day of natural gas to markets in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions of the country.
After spending nearly two years drafting a new environmental impact statement, the Forest Service released it in September and invited public input. More than 4,400 people submitted written comments.
Many of the remarks were critical of the report, which was described as grossly underestimating the project’s impact on the environment and abdicating the government’s duty to protect the forest.
David Sligh, conservation director for Wild Virginia, said the Forest Service provided only cursory responses to concerns raised by many about sediment clogging clear-running mountain streams.
“Details and facts matter, but we are essentially being told: ‘Take our word for it, everything is fine,” Sligh said Friday.
In its analysis of the public comments, the Forest Service wrote that support and opposition to the project have remained largely unchanged since 2017. “The public exercising their rights to free speech is typically a nominal effect on NFS lands and to that extent, there is no need to conduct additional analysis,” the statement read.
About 200 miles from its starting point in northern West Virginia, the pipeline will enter the national forest in Monroe County. It will then cross the Appalachian Trail at the top of Peters Mountain, close to the state line, before continuing southeast through the New River and Roanoke valleys to connect with an existing pipeline in Chatham.
Mountain Valley plans to bore a tunnel for the pipeline 90 feet below the Appalachian Trail that will extend the length of a football field from each side of the scenic footpath.
Opponents of the crossing, including the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, have said the pipeline will disturb the solitude of the trail and mar its viewshed for more than 100 miles.
As part of a voluntary stewardship agreement announced in August, Mountain Valley pledged up to $19.5 million to the conservancy and the Conservation Fund, which will use the money to conserve views and make improvements along other parts of the trail.
There are currently about a dozen natural gas pipelines that pass through the Jefferson and George Washington national forests, which are operated from the same headquarters in Roanoke. None carries as much gas or leaves as large a footprint as Mountain Valley will.
Some of the comments submitted to the Forest Service were about an email from one of its regional planning directors, who voiced concerns about the process used three years ago in approving the permit for Mountain Valley that was later struck down.
The Forest Service “was not in the driver’s seat,” when it came to making a final decision, Peter Gaulke wrote in a memo obtained through an open records request by The Roanoke Times. Instead, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees work on the entire pipeline, influenced the approval despite concerns from the Forest Service, Gaulke wrote.
In response, the environmental impact statement said that the Forest Service conducted a “thorough, independent review” of objections, and that the process did not place it at odds with FERC or other government agencies.
A final decision will be made by Jim Hubbard, undersecretary of natural resources and the environment for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If he approves the amendments to the forest’s resource management plan, that would lead to the Bureau of Land Management granting a right of way for the pipeline.
Diana Christopulos, who is leading opposition from the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, said she believes the process is being sped up so a final decision can be made before the Trump administration ends Jan. 20.