Court Strikes Down Permit for Pipeline Crossing Appalachian Trail

Judges quote Lorax, slam Forest Service in ruling questioning project’s impact and safety.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Appalachian Trail Blaze
A blaze on the Appalachian Trail in VirginiaDavid Stone

A proposed natural gas pipeline that would have crossed the Appalachian Trail is on hold after a federal judge revoked a key permit for the project, saying that the Forest Service had broken both federal law and its own policies in granting it.

In the decision from Richmond, Virginia’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, a three-judge panel ruled that the agency violated the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by approving construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline without addressing questions about its impact on slope stability, water quality, and wildlife.

In addition, the panel said, the Forest Service overstepped its authority by granting a permit for the project to cross the Appalachian Trail, a National Park Service unit where construction is subject to congressional approval.

“We trust the United States Forest Service to ‘speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,’” Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote in the court’s opinion, quoting The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. “A thorough review of the record leads to the necessary conclusion that the Forest Service abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources.”

As planned, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would run 604 miles, crossing six states and the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests. And while the pipeline would run underground, it would require permanently clearing a 50-foot-wide lane through the forest above it. (Tree roots can damage pipelines.) Construction would involve clearing even more wilderness—125 feet across in most places—as well as blasting ridgelines in the mountains to flatten them sufficiently for the project.

Senior Attorney DJ Gerken of the Southern Environmental Law Center, one of the groups that sued to block the pipeline’s construction, said the resulting damage would irreversibly change hikers’ experiences for the worse.

“The pipeline will create a permanent scar on views from the Appalachian Trail, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and spots in the National Forest,” he said. “The Park Service complained that the pipeline developer ignored the shape of the land, even more than a road or railroad would, and carved through mountains and valleys with no consideration for what the route would do to these scenic treasures.”

In ruling that the Forest Service had not properly addressed concerns about environmental impact and safety, judges pointed to the case of the Columbia Gas Transmission pipeline, which the Forest Service’s environmental impact statement singled out as an example of a safe pipeline that crosses similar terrain.

“Significantly, during the briefing of this case, a landslide in Marshall County, West Virginia, caused the Columbia … to rupture and explode,” Thacker wrote.

In a statement, the Forest Service said it would review the court opinion and look at its options before choosing a course of action. Dominion Energy, the main developer of the project, did not respond to a request for comment. In an email to NPR, spokesperson Aaron Ruby said the company planned to appeal the verdict.

If the decision stands, Dominion and its partners will either need to pass another, more rigorous Forest Service review or reroute the pipeline to cross the Appalachian Trail on state land, a change that could significantly lengthen its path. But Gerken said the SELC would like them to go one step further and reconsider whether the pipeline is necessary at all.

“Once you peel back all of [the developers’] talking points and get to the truth of the matter, you see this pipeline would cut through National Forests and National Parks for no reason other than that it will make guaranteed profit for its developers,” he said.

The ACP isn’t the only proposed pipeline that would cross the Appalachian Trail. Another, the under-construction Mountain Valley Pipeline, would cut through the Jefferson National Forest and has faced lawsuits from the Sierra Club and other nonprofits.