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Atlantic Coast Pipeline construction halts as court reviews 4 endangered species

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will carry natural gas through eight N.C. counties when it is completed in 2020.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will carry natural gas through eight N.C. counties when it is completed in 2020. .

Construction on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could be delayed for months after a federal court in Richmond ordered the 600-mile interstate natural gas project to stop all work on Friday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals suspended the federal permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which in September had cleared the way for pipeline construction in sensitive habitats. The habitats are home to four endangered species: a bee, a bat, a mussel and a crustacean.

Lawyers for the pipeline, which would run through eight counties in North Carolina, asked the court late Friday to reconsider the ban, saying it was too far-reaching. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s lawyers said, for example, that none of the four endangered species have sensitive habitats in North Carolina, suggesting that pipeline construction work could continue in the state.

“Due to the scope of the court’s order, Atlantic will be unable to proceed with any construction in the ‘action areas’ despite the lack of potential harm,” the pipeline’s lawyers wrote in a court filing.

A court hearing on the validity of the federal permit is not scheduled until March. The permit allows pipeline construction to accidentally harm wildlife protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.

But in the meantime the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and environmental groups who oppose the project are locked in a legal battle on whether the temporary construction ban should apply to the entire pipeline or just the areas with the endangered species.

DJ Gerken, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Saturday in a phone interview that the sensitive habitat of the Indiana bat, one of the endangered species, covers most of the pipeline’s projected path in West Virginia and Virginia. Gerken said his clients, which include the Sierra Club and the Virginia Wilderness Committee, oppose any construction work under an invalid federal permit.

According to the environmental group’s legal briefs, pipeline construction could harm endangered species in a variety of ways. The clubshell mussel would be buried alive by dredging and grading. Digging and blasting could crush or trap the Madison cave isopod, a type of crustacean. The rusty-patched bumble bee could be injured or killed by tree felling. And tree clearing would force pregnant female bats to change their flight routes, exposing the bats to predators.

Pipeline spokesman Aaron Ruby could not be reached for comment. Just about every state and federal permit issued to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has faced legal challenges, occasionally resulting in temporary stoppages on sections of the project. The environmentalist challenge to the federal permit that allows incidental harm to endangered species presents the most comprehensive legal challenge and potentially the longest delay to the project.

The pipeline is being built by an energy consortium led by Charlotte-based Duke Energy and Richmond-based Dominion Energy to bring natural gas to power plants, industries, homes and businesses in North Carolina. The natural gas would come from fracking operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The energy companies say supplying the region with cheap, abundant natural gas would lower costs for homes and businesses and help replace dirty coal with cleaner-burning natural gas. The environmental groups contend that fracking is environmentally destructive and that natural gas, a form of methane, is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

While the Indiana bat’s habitat covers the greatest area, the endangered bumble bee is in the most precarious position of the affected species.

“RPBB is on the brink of extinction,” the environmental legal brief states. “Its populations have have plummeted 88 percent since the 1990s.”

According to the environmental groups, 96 percent of known populations of this bumble bee have just five bees or fewer.

“The ACP will crush RBBBs — up to one nest and eight overwintering queens,” the brief states. “Because one nest represents thirty potential foundress queens, the ACP will cause the loss of up to thirty-eight nests the following year.”

The organizations say that 38 individual rusty-patched bumble bees — much less colonies — have not been documented in one place in decades.

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John Murawski covers health care and environmental issues and has won numerous awards from the N.C. Press Association for his news coverage as well as his book reviews. He has previously worked as a journalist in South Florida, the Philadelphia area and Washington, D.C. He attended Virginia Commonwealth University and Indiana University, and has taken classes at Veracruz University (in Mexico) and the Jagiellonian University (in Poland). He can be reached at jmurawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932.
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