By Phil Mckenna
A federal court has invalidated a key permit for the Atlantic Coast pipeline project, a step that could give civil rights advocates more time to build their environmental justice case against the $6 billion project to carry natural gas from West Virginia to North Carolina.
Opponents of the Atlantic Coast pipeline allege the Dominion Energy-led project would have a disproportionate impact on people of color living along its route.
A group of community and statewide advocacy groups in North Carolina, along with the national Friends of the Earth, filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office on Tuesday asking the agency to overturn North Carolina state permits for the pipeline and for a new environmental justice analysis of it.
On the same day, a three-judge panel in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit for the pipeline, known as an “incidental take limit.” The judges ruled that that permit, designed to limit the number of threatened or endangered species that could be harmed or killed during the pipeline’s construction and operation, was too vague and could not be enforced.
Dominion Energy said the decision only covered parts of the proposed 600-mile project and that the company will move forward with construction as scheduled.
The community and environmental groups, meanwhile, say state and federal agencies failed to assess disproportionate health impacts the proposed pipeline project would have on minorities as required under the Civil Rights Act.
They assert that an analysis by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission erred in how it compared state, county and local community data in ways that disguised the real discriminatory effect of the route.
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Tamara Young-Allen, a spokeswoman for FERC, the agency that conducted the environmental justice assessment, declined to comment saying she can’t discuss matters that are pending before a final decision by the commision.
The commission approved the pipeline in October, but has since received multiple requests from environmental groups and landowners for a rehearing of that decision.
The pipeline’s challengers cite an outside environmental justice assessment completed in March by RTI International, a North Carolina nonprofit, working with local environmental groups that provided input.
“As most of the North Carolina counties along the proposed ACP corridor have communities of color significantly above the state average, this decision greatly minimizes the apparent disproportionality in minorities impacted,” the complaint letter filed on Tuesday stated.