By: Timothy B. Wheeler, BayJournal.com
A major roadblock to the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has been cleared by the U.S. Supreme Court, but other hurdles and legal challenges remain for the $8 billion project to transport natural gas across Virginia.
The high court ruled Monday that the U.S. Forest Service could permit the controversial pipeline to pass under the Appalachian Trail. The ruling reversed a finding by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that the agency lacked that authority, even though the scenic hiking trail runs through the George Washington National Forest in central Virginia.
The Fourth Circuit in 2018 had vacated a permit issued by the Forest Service, declaring that management of the Appalachian Trail had been transferred to the National Park Service and that federal law prohibits pipeline rights of way on lands in the national park system.
But in a 7–2 decision, the high court found that the lower court had erred. In an opinion for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the “Department of the Interior’s decision to assign responsibility for the Appalachian Trail to the National Park Service did not transform the land over which the Trail passes into land within the National Park System.”
Dominion Energy, which has partnered with Duke Energy to build the 600-mile pipeline from West Virginia to northeastern North Carolina, welcomed the high court’s ruling as an “affirmation.” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby noted that 50 other pipelines “have safely crossed the Trail without disturbing its public use.” The pipeline will be installed hundreds of feet below the trail’s surface, he said, and emerge more than a half-mile away on either side.
The pipeline still needs several other permits, and a federal court is reviewing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s finding that the project is needed to supply natural gas to power plants in the region. The Dominion spokesman said the company looks forward to resolving the remaining permits, but pipeline opponents vowed to press their case that the project is environmentally harmful and unneeded.
“It’s been six years since this pipeline was proposed,” said Dick Brooks of the Cowpasture River Preservation Association, one of the communities and environmental groups challenging the project. “We didn’t need it then and we certainly don’t need it now. Today’s decision doesn’t change the fact that Dominion chose a risky route through protected federal lands, steep mountains, and vulnerable communities.”