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Opinion/Editorial: Tree felling for pipeline premature

Opinion/Editorial: Tree felling for pipeline premature

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Given current slowdowns to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, it’s a shame that pipeline developers got permission to start felling trees last year even before all permits were approved.

Some environmental damage might have been mitigated — or at least delayed.

It’s not as if Dominion Energy and its partners let loose the bulldozers, though. The tree-cutting was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under limited conditions: Easements must already have been obtained to access land where trees were to be cut. Surveys must have been completed on that land. And no other state or local permits must have been required for the activity.

The developers also were restrained from using heavy equipment — basically, anything bigger than a chain saw — and from disturbing the ground.

They also agreed to measures to help protect several animal species of concern, including migratory birds and endangered bats, and to protect stream buffers as well — although they later argued that the work limits established to protect nests were an economic hardship, and although FERC later permitted developers some access to wetlands.

Despite efforts to limit impact, environmental damage did occur.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality issued a violation notice for tree felling that occurred within wetland buffer zones and stream crossings that were supposed to be protected.

The violation notice covered 15 separate incidents.

Dominion self-reported the incidents, reiterated the rules to employees and contractors, and promised to keep such errors from happening in the future.

All that is background to what’s been happening recently: the fact that the ACP has lost several important court challenges that are delaying the project — if not dooming it, as some opponents hope.

A federal appeals court has rejected permits issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service. A common thread is that the permits failed to adequately address existing law or follow reasonable procedures. One ruling said a permit was "arbitrary and capricious"; one said that the limits set by a permit were so “indeterminate” as to be virtually useless; and another cited an agency’s “mysterious” reversal from concern to approval, implying the improper use of political pressure.

And there are still more cases pending.

Dominion says that legal challenges have increased the cost of the ACP by half a billion dollars and delayed completion until next year at the earliest.

Which means that last year’s tree cutting can be seen as premature.

It might not matter to Dominion that trees were felled so far in advance of the actual pipeline construction; after all, the forest isn’t going to grow back in a year.

But it matters to the well-being of the environment. Although developers were required to leave felled trees on the ground, the loss of tree canopy significantly alters the local habitat and its health. That the trees were cut before they needed to be exacerbates the harm.

And then there’s the matter of the stream crossing and wetlands violations. They shouldn’t have happened at all, no matter when the trees were cut. But if developers hadn’t been rushing the process, as it appears, they might have taken more care to understand and correctly implement the terms of the permit.

The ACP is a high-impact project, no matter what angle you look at it. Because of its potential to do great harm to the environment and private property — or great good for consumers and shareholders — its permitting approvals are equally high-impact and must be handled with the care and caution they deserve.

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