Legal challenges filed targeting state and federal Atlantic Coast Pipeline approvals

Under its current configuration, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cross numerous tributaries to the Shenandoah River. (© Westend61)

SELC and Appalachian Mountain Advocates, on behalf of a coalition of community and conservation groups, filed a legal challenge to the Virginia State Water Control Board’s approval of a water quality certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. While the board’s decision postponed the effectiveness of the certification until important studies are complete, Virginia has treated the decision as final. The groups had to file this challenge now to meet a deadline under state law. In its current state, the certification does not adequately assess the impacts of the project on water quality in Virginia sufficiently to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act.

This was one of three SELC fillings in federal court this week related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

"From the very start of this process, Dominion has pressured state and federal regulators charged with protecting local communities and the environment to quickly approve its project, despite the risks to landowners and natural resources, and despite widespread public opposition,” said Senior Attorney Greg Buppert. “As this challenge demonstrates, it’s clear these agencies must fundamentally reevaluate the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and their processes that failed to thoroughly and properly evaluate this project and its impact.”

Just last December, the Virginia State Water Control Board voted 4-3 to approve a water quality certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline even though the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) failed to provide the critical information the board needed to ensure water quality will be protected in Virginia. This challenge, brought by a broad coalition, initiates judicial review of the decision in the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

The board may have another opportunity to deny the pipeline’s water certification once DEQ completes its review of several critically important plans submitted by the pipeline developers, who are led by Dominion Energy. DEQ has not made public the timeline for when that information will be available, and it has stated that there will not be an opportunity for public comment once its assessment is released. The coalition hopes to continue working with the new administration of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to address the problems with the 401 process for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Included in the coalition are: Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Cowpasture River Preservation Association, Friends of Buckingham, Highlanders for Responsible Development, Jackson River Preservation Association, Potomac Riverkeeper Network, Shenandoah Riverkeeper, Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, Shenandoah Valley Network, the Sierra Club, Virginia Wilderness Committee, and Wild Virginia.

Also today, SELC took two other legal actions related to pipeline decisions. On behalf of the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and Virginia Wilderness Committee SELC filed a legal challenge to a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as a legal challenge on behalf of the Sierra Club and The Virginia Wilderness Committee to a decision by the National Park Service. The agencies both issued permits for the pipeline that further highlight agency failures to adequately review crucial information in a process that is being driven by developers rather than regulators.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Biological Opinion granted developers the ability to move forward with the project despite its impact on endangered bats. The opinion, which specifically permits harm for a “small percentage” of bats, is not in keeping with the law requiring the agency to more accurately determine the number of endangered species developers are allowed to harm.

The other legal challenge from SELC targets the National Park Service’s issuance of a permit to allow the pipeline to cross beneath the Blue Ridge Parkway. Constructing the pipeline would have long-term impacts on the Parkway’s viewshed.

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