Court Blocks Pipeline From Crossing Appalachian Trail

The fate of the mostly-complete Mountain Valley Pipeline is up in the air after a federal appeals court threw out a key permit that would have allowed it to cross Jefferson National Forest.

Photo: The Washington Post / Contributor via Getty

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A federal appeals court threw out a key permit for a gas pipeline slated to cross the Appalachian Trail on Tuesday, further delaying a project that has pitted hikers and environmentalists against fossil fuels interests for the past four years.

In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management failed to comply with environmental regulations when it issued a permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline to cross a 3.5-mile stretch of the Jefferson National Forest, which includes the Appalachian Trail. Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote that the federal government “erroneously failed to account for real-world data suggesting increased sedimentation along the Pipeline route.”

The 304-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would carry natural gas from West Virginian shale projects to Virginia, is mostly complete and was slated to open this summer after years of delays. While the pipeline itself wouldn’t be visible, installing and maintaining it would require permanently clear-cutting a 125-foot-wide corridor through the forest which would run alongside the trail for nearly 100 miles and be visible from popular lookouts like Angel’s Rest, Kelly Knob, Rice Fields, and the Dragons Tooth. The pipeline’s planned route also crosses streams and other waterways more than 1,000 times, which backcountry anglers fear could cloud the sources of some of the region’s most beloved fishing spots. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which had originally opposed the pipeline, drew criticism in 2020 when it inked a $19.5 million “voluntary conservation stewardship agreement” with the MVP’s developers.

"pipeline rendering"
An artist’s impression of what the pipeline’s clear-cut right of way could look like from the Appalachian Trail.

This week’s decision marks the second time that a federal court has thrown out the pipeline’s permit. After the first time, in 2018, the two agencies deliberated for nearly two years before reissuing it. Those delays have been costly for the project, ballooning its original $3.5 billion budget to nearly $6 billion. Rising costs and court-imposed delays sunk another planned AT-crossing pipeline in 2020 when the backers behind the Atlantic Coast Pipeline canceled the project despite winning a Supreme Court fight to build it. In a statement, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy cited the “increasing legal uncertainty that overhangs large-scale energy and industrial infrastructure development in the United States” in their decision to wind the project down.

In an emailed statement, Natalie Cox, a spokesperson for Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, wrote that the company would be “thoroughly reviewing the Court’s decision regarding MVP’s crossing permit for the Jefferson National Forest and [would] be expeditiously evaluating the project’s next steps and timing considerations.” Another legal challenge to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion on the project still awaits a ruling in court.