One month after a federal agency said in a biological opinion that construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline would not jeopardize protected species of bats, fish, and a plant, environmental groups are seeking a second opinion.
A petition filed Monday asks a federal appeals court to review the finding by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Construction of this fossil fuel nightmare has already harmed imperiled wildlife, but the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to ignore its duty to ensure that waterways and the species that rely on them are protected,” said Jared Margolis, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of 11 environmental and community groups that filed the petition.
“It’s reckless and unlawful to allow this project to decimate more essential habitats and harm our climate,” Margolis said.
The filing with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals follows a familiar pattern in the nearly decade-long controversy over the natural gas pipeline: Government permits for the project are granted, challenged in court, struck down, re-granted, and then challenged again.
Two earlier opinions by the Fish and Wildlife Service — set aside in 2019 and 2022 by a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit — reached the same conclusion as the most recent one.
“We are carefully reviewing the request and will respond accordingly,” David Eisenhauer a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote in an email late Monday.
The brief did not state the grounds for challenging the latest finding. A 297-page opinion from the service came after nearly a year of research and consideration that followed a 2022 decision by the Fourth Circuit, which cited “serious errors” with an earlier conclusion that threatened and endangered species would not be jeopardized.
A more detailed argument is expected in future filings.
The latest document from the Fish and Wildlife Service provides additional data and analysis to support the federal government’s finding of no significant harm to five species: the endangered Indiana bat, the threatened northern long-eared bat, the endangered Roanoke logperch, the endangered candy darter and the threatened Virginia spiraea, a flowering shrub native to southern Appalachia.
The finding was derided by opponents, who say building a 303-mile buried pipeline through pristine woodlands and across clear-running streams has already had dire environmental consequences that will only continue if work resumes.
Although Mountain Valley is largely completed, there has been no active construction since the fall of 2021.
Construction of the $6.6 billion project has been stalled by legal action on multiple fronts: over the Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species finding, the U.S. Forest Service’s permit for the pipeline to pass through the Jefferson National Forest, and authorizations from several agencies for the 42-inch diameter pipe to cross through streams and wetlands.
Last week, a water quality certification from the Department of Environmental Protection in West Virginia, where the interstate pipeline begins, was struck down by the Fourth Circuit. The court had earlier approved a similar action that covered stream crossings in Virginia, where the project’s route will take it through the New River and Roanoke valleys to connect with an existing pipeline near the North Carolina state line.
The denial of the West Virginia permit — and now the latest challenge of the Fish and Wildlife Service approval — mean that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot move forward on a final permit that is needed for water body crossings, opponents said.
Joining the Center for Biological Diversity in the latest legal action were: Appalachian Voices, Wild Virginia, the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, Preserve Giles County, Preserve Bent Mountain, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Indian Creek Watershed Association, and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.