"Two Pennsylvania environmental groups on Monday filed a challenge before the state’s Environmental Hearing Board to permits issued for Williams Partners LP’s $1.9 billion Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline, almost a month after the company broke ground on the project."
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The Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Lancaster Against Pipelines assert that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection erred when it issued water obstruction and encroachment permits for nine different Pennsylvania counties in August.
“The department’s issuance of the permits is unlawful and an abuse of discretion given the project’s adverse impacts to hundreds of streams and wetlands location within the critically important Chesapeake Watershed, including the permanent conversion of exceptional value wetlands, without adequate (or in some cases, without any) mitigation of the resulting harm to water quality,” the groups said in their notice of appeal.
Williams subsidiary Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co.'s Atlantic Sunrise project is part of a $3 billion expansion of its existing interstate pipeline system to transport an additional 1.7 billion cubic feet of gas per day from northern Pennsylvania to markets in the mid-Atlantic and southeastern U.S. Williams says that its net investment in the project — which includes 183 miles of new greenfield pipe and two 12-mile loops, along with two compressor facilities and other infrastructure — will be approximately $1.9 billion.
After securing the water obstruction and encroachment permits from DEP in August, followed by air quality permits from the agency in early September, the company broke ground on the project on Sept. 15, starting work on compressor stations in Wyoming County and Columbia County. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission signed off on the project in January.
In Monday’s challenge, the groups said that the water permits allow over 350 water crossings along the length of the pipeline and that at least 79 exceptional value wetlands will be impacted by the project.
They said Williams failed to demonstrate in its permit applications that its construction activities will not have an adverse effect on the wetlands and waterways in its path. They also accuse DEP of failing to evaluate the cumulative effects of the project, by issuing the permits from two different regional offices without a coordinated review of the pipeline’s impact. They added that the department failed to consider how the completion of the project would encourage the development of other natural gas infrastructure.
They also invoked the Environmental Rights Amendment to the state’s constitution, which has been revitalized by recent litigation.
The challenge was filed on the same day that activists for Lancaster Against Pipelines claim to have used civil disobedience to block a pipeline construction site in that county.
But attorney Mark Freed, who represents the groups, said the timing was a coincidence, and the filing was triggered by a 30-day appeal deadline on Tuesday.
He added that DEP had erred in its handling of the pipeline by submitting its certification to the federal government that the project would protect water quality standards well before issuing the permits that show exactly how these protections will take place.
“They put the cart before the horse, in approving the 401 water quality certification without the benefit of the underlying environmental permits,” Freed said. “Now they’ve issued the permits, we’ve looked at them and said this is exactly what we were concerned about.”
DEP spokesman Neil Shader said the agency's counsel was currently reviewing the appeal since offices were closed Monday and had no comment at the time.
A spokesman for Williams did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The challengers are represented by Jordan Yeager, Mark L. Freed and Joanna A. Waldron of Curtin & Heefner LLP and Delaware Riverkeeper Network staff attorney Aaron Stemplewicz.
Counsel information for DEP and Williams was not immediately available Tuesday.
The case is Lancaster Against Pipelines et al. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Environmental Protection et al., case number 2017-095, before the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board.
--Additional reporting by Keith Goldberg. Editing by Alyssa Miller.
Update: This article has been updated to include comments from counsel for the environmental groups and DEP.