The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with environmental groups this week, ruling that the U.S. Forest Service violated federal environmental laws by granting permission for the construction of the Atlantic Coastal Pipeline. This 600 mile natural gas pipeline would cut through the mid-Atlantic United States, from West Virginia to North Caroline, and would traverse part of the Appalachian Trail.
The project has been met with opposition since its inception, with environmentalists arguing that federal agencies have failed to properly review the impact of the project on the health of natural resources. In August, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission imposed a stop-work order on the grounds that the Fish and Wildlife Service did not yet provide an impact statement. The FERC lifted the order after receiving commentary from the Forest Service regarding revisions to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s opinion. Opponents sought an immediate stay of the project arguing that the Forest Service improperly gave the go ahead for work. Justice Stephanie Thacker agreed, issuing an opinion which imposed an immediate stop on project-related clear cutting of public forest land that had begun in March.
Justice Thacker’s opinion stated that Forest Service, despite being provided with information which showed adverse impacts to federally protected species, made an “about-face” and states that the project would have no such negative impact. That conclusion was held to be significant, because the Forest Service cannot authorize use of national forests that are likely to result in a loss of viability for a species.” Thacker also ruled the Forest Service did not have authority to provide permission for pipeline construction on the Appalachian Trail, which is controlled by the Interior Department, not the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service.
Quoting Dr. Seuss’ 1971 work “The Lorax,” Thacker wrote the Forest Service appeared to have abandoned its mission to protect US forests. “We trust the United States Forest Service to ‘speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,'” she wrote. “A thorough review of the record leads to the conclusion that the Forest Service abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources.”