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Pipeline permit heads to Supreme Court

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Two Nash County property owners affected by the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline jumped on a train Sunday morning headed for Washington, D.C., intent on hearing oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court Monday.

Marvin Winstead, whose farm would be bisected by the proposed path of the natural gas transmission pipeline, and Joe Poland, another property owner, boarded the Amtrak Carolinian at 11:40 a.m. in Rocky Mount bound for the nation’s capital.

Winstead said their trip was funded by the National Sierra Club. Winstead is a member of the Nash Stop the Pipeline group, which is backed in part by the Sierra Club.

A third invitee, Belinda Joyner of Northampton County, will be joining Winstead and Poland in their attempts to get into the Supreme Court chambers to hear oral arguments.

“You can’t reserve seats. You’ve got to get there early,” Winstead said. “I kind of view it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The pipeline’s developers, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, will ask the high court to reverse a federal appeals court ruling that vacated a permit for the 605-mile pipeline to cross two national forests, including parts of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

In its ruling, a three-judge panel of the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sharply criticized the U.S. Forest Service for granting a special-use permit to build the pipeline through parts of the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests, and to cross the Appalachian Trail.

The court found that the Forest Service did not have the statutory authority to approve the trail crossing and said the agency had “abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources.”

The question before the Supreme Court is whether the Forest Service has authority to grant rights-of-way for gas pipelines through lands crossed by the Appalachian Trail within national forests.

Environmentalists said only Congress can approve such a crossing.

Under plans for the project, the pipeline would cross about 700 feet beneath the Appalachian Trail.

That tiny segment is a key component of the pipeline project’s route.

Some 180 miles of pipeline would run through eight North Carolina counties. The 36-inch wide high pressure transmission line runs roughly parallel to Interstate 95.

Wilson County has 12 miles of proposed pipeline. Two Wilson County property owners have declined to come to an agreement to allow the pipeline to cross their properties. About 60 property owners in Wilson County have taken the developer’s money to strike deals to allow easements across their properties

COWPASTURE CASE

The case before the court is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC vs. Cowpasture River Preservation Association.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals revoked the ACP permit and ruled that the U.S. Forest Service did not have the authority to grant a permit to Dominion Energy to cross the trail on federal land.

Monday’s hearing is an appeal by Dominion Energy and the U.S. Forest Service of that decision.

The Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club represented the Cowpasture plaintiffs and will defend the ruling at the Supreme Court Monday.

Environmental groups say the pipeline would scar pristine landscapes, put numerous rivers and streams at risk of increased sedimentation and harm sensitive species.

“If the decision were to go in the favor of the environmentalists, that would make it much, much tougher for the ACP companies to continue on with plans for construction of the pipeline,” Winstead said.

Were the Supreme Court to decide in favor of the ACP developers, there are still legal hurdles ahead for Dominion and Duke.

“There are still seven other permits that have been vacated or put on hold so they would have to be resolved as well,” Winstead said. “These companies, if they win, they are really gong to toot their horn loudly and want to make a lot of publicity out of it.”

“I am just keeping my fingers crossed that the decision comes our way,” Winstead said. “The decision will not be handed down tomorrow. It’s just the oral arguments before the justices. The written decision will not come down until sometime in May or June.”

BEHIND SCHEDULE

Construction of the pipeline has continued in North Carolina despite the rulings in Virginia putting holds on the project.

There are numerous corridors in Nash County where trees have been felled, temporary roads have been installed, signs put in noting the path of the ACP.

“They were doing construction here in North Carolina because they were saying those permits were pulled in Virginia so they were free to do construction in North Carolina,” Winstead said. “They twist everything and take an inch and make a mile out of it.”

The project has faced one setback after another, with legal challenges brought by environmental groups — prompting the dismissal or suspension of eight permits and halting construction for more than a year.

Now, three years behind schedule, with a price tag that has nearly doubled to $8 billion, the project is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court for a hearing Monday on a critical permit.

“It’s important because Dominion has really bet its project on this crossing point,” said Greg Buppert, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which sued on behalf of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.

Dominion spokeswoman Ann Nallo said the company chose that crossing point after consulting with federal agencies to determine the best route for the pipeline.

“Part of the determination involved the impact on the environment,” Nallo said.

A host of environmentalists, land owners and communities along the pipeline route have urged the Supreme Court to uphold the 4th Circuit’s ruling.

“The bottom line is, no matter what happens on Monday, there are other issues,” said Lew Freeman, executive director of the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of 51 organizations opposing the pipeline.

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