Seneca Rocks rises behind the Monongahela National Forest Discovery Center in eastern West Virginia.
Photo: AP

A panel of three appeals court judges just shot down a major Atlantic coast natural gas project that was set to tear through two national forests—again.

The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline needs to stay out of the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests in West Virginia. This is the latest in a string of recent court decisions that could potentially kill the 600-mile long natural gas pipeline.

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Environmental activists have been fighting this $5 billion pipeline project, which is set to cut through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, for years. They’re worried about gas leaks, which could harm surrounding ecosystems. They also don’t want any risk of explosions, which grows with the size of the pipeline—and this one is wider than most at 42 inches.

This latest ruling now has the project on pause. And it’ll stay that way unless the project developers—which include Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and Southern Company Gas—can figure out a new route that skips the 21 miles of national forest land and meet the judges’ requests on further environmental review.

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The court ruled unanimously that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act in its granting of a special use permit and record of decision for the pipeline to cross these two national forests, as well as the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. The judges argued that this authority is under the National Park Service, not the Forest Service.

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Plus, the Forest Service seems to have half-assed its analysis of the pipeline’s environmental impacts. In the judges’ words, “[W]e cannot conclude that the Forest Service took a hard look at the environmental consequences of its decision.” They go on, “This conclusion is particularly informed by the Forest Service’s serious environmental concerns that were suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company’s deadlines.”

The court is asking the service to examine how the pipeline’s construction could impact erosion, sedimentation, and water quality issues the environmental impact statement fails to address. In a pretty badass move, the judges even quote Dr. Seuss in their order, noting their trust in the Forest Service’s ability to “speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

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Earther has reached out to developer Dominion Energy for comment and will update when we hear back. Dominion told the Associated Press it plans to petition the court for an en banc review where all members of the Fourth Circuit Appeals Court can hear the case, but the court must approve this move.

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D.J. Gerken, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who argued the case, told Earther it’s rare for judges to grant such a review, and he doesn’t expect it to happen this time. Even if they do, he’s not expecting the decision to change.

“We’ll see what the court says, but the panel’s decision was well-reasoned and based on the facts of the case,” Gerken said.

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If that path doesn’t work for the pipeline developers, they can also choose to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices have discretion over whether they take the case on. As for the plaintiffs that brought the suit, they consider this case over and done with.

The Southern Environmental Law Center has three other cases pending on this energy project, including one on endangered species, another on a separate crossing through the Blue Ridge Parkway, and whether the project is even necessary.

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“Every single one of this agency decisions was rushed through with cut corners and response to intense political pressure, so we’re grateful that checks and balances are working,” Gerken told Earther. “All these agencies are subject to rules to protect the environment, and they don’t get to ignore them for a politically powerful developer.”