ROANOKE — Already slowed by the loss of two permits and a lawsuit that challenges a third one, construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline hit another major roadblock Friday.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a stay to a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, pending its review of lawsuit brought by environmental groups headed by the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club said Friday's stay “effectively means construction must stop” on the 303-mile pipeline.
Mountain Valley suspended new construction on some stretches of the pipeline in August, three days after the lawsuit claimed that an approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately protect endangered species in the project’s path.
Attorneys for the Sierra Club, which filed the challenge on behalf of seven groups, argued that the voluntary suspension did not go far enough.
“This laissez-faire approach has already had dire consequences,” they wrote in asking for the stay, citing examples of where Mountain Valley was allowed to continue work on the natural gas pipeline.
Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox wrote in an email Friday that “we are disappointed and disagree” with the 4th Circuit’s ruling.
The impact of the stay is mitigated, she said, by an earlier decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to review two permits that governed the pipeline’s impact on endangered species.
That process, she said, is expected to “lead to a timely review and reinstatement of all required approvals.”
However, it’s unknown how the 4th Circuit will treat the allegations in the latest lawsuit to hit the natural gas project, which is already running behind time and over budget.
In a similar case involving the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the court castigated the Fish and Wildlife Service, writing that it had “lost sight of its mandate” to protect endangered animals and plants.
"MVP’s dangerous pipeline project has already destroyed and degraded the habitat of endangered species along its route, not to mention the threat it poses to clean air and water,” Sierra Club staff attorney Elly Benson said in a statement Friday.
“That’s why, time after time, we have said MVP should stop work on this pipeline. Their rushed, shoddy permitting puts the entire project in question. And time after time, the courts have agreed.”
Before Friday’s stay, Mountain Valley had been working to regain two other permits struck down last year by the 4th Circuit.
One allowed the pipeline to burrow under more than 1,000 streams and wetlands along its path from northern West Virginia, through Southwest Virginia, to connect with a pipeline near the North Carolina line.
The other suspended permit was for the pipeline to cross through about 3.5 miles of the Jefferson National Forest. Both were struck down for environmental reasons.
Mountain Valley has said it hopes to regain the permits in time to finish the $5 billion project by the middle of next year.
In the latest lawsuit, Wild Virginia and six other environmental groups say two Fish and Wildlife approvals — a biological opinion and an incidental take permit issued two years ago — fail to protect at least four species of fish and bats.
Tree cutting has damaged the habitat of the Indiana and northern long-eared bats, the lawsuit claims, while sediment washed from the construction zone has clogged streams and rivers that harbor the Roanoke logperch and the candy darter.
Friday’s stay was issued by Roger Gregory, chief judge of the 4th Circuit, and Judges Stephanie Thacker and James Wynn, who all have been involved in rulings against the pipeline in the past.
Meanwhile, Mountain Valley will pay $2.15 million to resolve a lawsuit by Virginia regulators that accused it of repeatedly violating environmental standards in building its natural gas pipeline.
The agreement, announced Friday by Attorney General Mark Herring, also requires the company to submit to court-ordered and supervised compliance with regulations meant to curb erosion and sedimentation.