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Court Says Atlantic Coast Pipeline Can't Cross Appalachian Trail

A federal appeals court has ruled that the $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline cannot be built across national forest land and the Appalachian Trail.
Atlantic Coast Pipeline
A federal appeals court has ruled that the $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline cannot be built across national forest land and the Appalachian Trail.

Updated at 8:55 p.m.
A federal appeals court in Virginia has ruled that the $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline cannot be built across national forest land and the Appalachian Trail in west central Virginia.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond throws out a permit issued by the U.S. Forest Service that would have allowed the construction.

The ruling came in a suit filed by several environmental groups, which were represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.  

"The court found that the forest service does not have authority to let the pipeline cross the Appalachian Trail," said SELC lawyer Greg Buppert. "So that means under existing law, the pipeline can't cross the trail at the location where Dominion has proposed."

The pipeline route goes through the George Washington and Monongahela national forests and across the Appalachian Trail in Augusta County, Va., near Staunton, west of Charlottesville.  Federal laws bar the pipeline from going through national parks, such as the Appalachian Trail.

Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote in her opinion that the Forest Service permit violated federal laws, including the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. And she said the forest service lacked the authority under another law to grant a pipeline right of way across the Appalachian Trail.  

In the ruling, the judges said it would take an act of Congress to allow a pipeline to cross National Park property.

Buppert said he thinks the ruling could be a "dealbreaker" for the pipeline. 

"Dominion thought it was going to be able skirt rules that apply to national park lands. That's why they picked this location," Buppert said. "Many of the (pipeline) alternatives it proposed go through this one spot. So this is the critical pivot point, the critical linchpin for the entire project. And now we know it's not valid, that Dominion can't cross here. And I think it sends the project back to the drawing board." 

Both Dominion Energy and Duke Energy said they would immediately appeal the decision to the full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  In a statement, they said:

"We strongly disagree with the court’s ruling. The court’s decision 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. All of these agencies agree that the Forest Service has the full legal authority to approve the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s crossing of the Appalachian Trail (AT). Under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, for decades 56 other oil and gas pipelines have operated across the AT. This opinion brings into question whether or not these existing pipelines can remain in place. 

It's the second ruling in a week against the 600-mile pipeline project, which is being built by Virginia's Dominion Energy in partnership with Duke Energy and The Southern Co. of Georgia. Last week, the same court put on hold a permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for construction in areas that could harm four endangered species.


Read the 60-page opinionfrom the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (PDF)

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the name of the appeals court judge who wrote the opinion, Stephanie Thacker. 

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.