Quoting Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” the Fourth Circuit spoke for the trees this month by scrapping a key federal permit for a planned section of a natural gas pipeline crossing 21 miles of national forest in Virginia, including a section of the Appalachian Trail.
“We trust the United States Forest Service to ‘speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,’” the ruling states, citing the 1971 children’s book. “For the reasons set forth herein, we grant the petition to review the Forest Service’s record of decision and special use permit, vacate the Forest Service’s decisions, and remand to the Forest Service for proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
The Richmond-based appeals court said the Forest Service, which had approved a permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to snake through the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests, pulled an about-face after its technical staff’s research painted a “grim picture” of the pipeline’s potential impacts on the environment.
“A thorough review of the record leads to the necessary conclusion that the Forest Service abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources,” U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel. “This conclusion is particularly informed by the Forest Service’s serious environmental concerns that were suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company’s deadlines.”
The panel singled out final environmental impact statements, abbreviated as FEIS, the Forest Service had provided to justify the pipeline’s presence in rocky or unstable terrain.
“Perhaps nothing demonstrates the dangers of the Forest Service’s insufficient analysis of landslide risks clearer than the FEIS’s use of the Columbia Gas Transmission pipeline as an example of an existing pipeline in the Appalachian Mountains that safely crosses karst terrain,” Thacker wrote.
During the case proceedings, a landslide in Marshall County, West Virginia, caused the Columbia pipeline — cited by the Forest Service for its safety — to rupture and explode, according to the ruling.
In addition to erosion concerns,the court noted the possible loss of habitat for bats if the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was allowed to pass through the once-permitted area.
The $7 billion pipeline project is led by North Carolina-based Duke Energy and Dominion Energy of Virginia.
A Dominion spokesperson told the Staunton News Leader that the ruling “is at odds with the consensus of the U.S.Department of Interior, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service.”
“I believe that while this ruling is a significant step in the right direction, it is just one of many rulings that will be necessary to ensure that the pipeline is not built,” Mark Miller, the executive director of the Virginia Wilderness Committee, told Courthouse News on Monday.
The Virginia Wilderness Committee is working with the Southern Environmental Law Center to prevent construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and said there is no way to effectively work with the pipeline company to preserve the environment.
“This pipeline would just create another major corridor across the landscape. The pipeline corridor will serve a vector for invasive species, disrupt intact forest habitat, cut through significant stands of old growth and thus impact species like the Indian bat that require older forest for overnight roosting during the summer months,” Miller said.
Another concern about a pipeline in that area is the negative effect on water quality, according to Miller.
“We find it implausible that there can be little or no impact on the water quality in Virginia during its construction and operation,” He said. “The waters of the George Washington National Forest are an important water source for many communities not only in the counties directly impacted by the pipeline but also for millions that live downstream from the forest.”
The Virginia Wilderness Committee played a lead role in the development of the Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area proposal that was adopted by forest planners and included in a revised management plan for the George Washington National Forest.
Miller said the pipeline would pass just south of there, near the Three Ridges Wilderness area. He said almost every community that would be affected by the pipeline has stated opposition to it.