The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. Photo by Acroterion.

A federal appeals court on Tuesday granted a stay of construction activity on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, saying a dispute over the project’s impact on endangered species must be resolved before work can continue.

Environmental groups said they expect the order, issued by a three-judge panel of the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, will halt all construction activity on the 303-mile, 42-inch-diameter natural gas pipeline through Virginia and West Virginia until their case against the pipeline is decided.

The case in question involves a coalition of groups, including Appalachian Voices, the Sierra Club and Wild Virginia, who dispute a federal opinion that the pipeline won’t harm protected endangered species such as the Roanoke logperch and the candy darter.

“All we’ve ever asked is that our basic environmental protection laws, including the Endangered Species Act, be enforced,” David Sligh, Wild Virginia’s conservation director, said in a statement. “Federal officials have not yet lived up to that basic requirement on this project and the courts have had to step in. Construction on this harmful project must be ended now. ”

The order came a day after the same panel of judges issued a stay of construction activity in a pair of related cases in which The Wilderness Society and the Southern Environmental Law Center have been challenging permits that would allow the pipeline to cross through the Jefferson National Forest, which is on the border of Virginia and West Virginia.

Both court orders were brief and did not provide reasons for the stays.

In a statement, Equitrans Midstream — which owns the largest stake in the pipeline and has said it plans to operate the pipeline once it’s running — said it is “beyond disappointed with the two recent decisions” by the 4th Circuit.

“We continue to evaluate all legal options, which include filing emergency appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unless these decisions are promptly reversed, they would jeopardize Mountain Valley’s ability to complete construction by year-end 2023,” the company said.

Mountain Valley Pipeline has argued that these cases against it should be dismissed, saying a pipeline-specific provision in the recently passed Fiscal Responsibility Act removes the 4th Circuit’s jurisdiction to decide the cases.

The act — which was better known as the deal to suspend and later raise the nation’s debt ceiling — ordered the approval of all remaining permits necessary to complete the pipeline, shielded the project from further legal challenges by removing judicial review of those permits, and said only the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has jurisdiction to hear any challenges to the constitutionality of the provision.

But the environmental groups have said the Fiscal Responsibility Act’s Mountain Valley Pipeline-specific provision unconstitutionally violates the separation of powers between the legislative and the judicial branches. They argue that the cases should not only continue to be heard, but that the 4th Circuit should hear them and also has the authority to determine the constitutionality of the act’s pipeline provision.

The $6.6 billion pipeline has been embroiled in controversy since it was first announced in 2014 and has faced numerous legal challenges and disputes over various government approvals.

Landowners and environmental activists have opposed the project, citing concerns about safety, its environmental impact and its acquisition of private property through eminent domain. Supporters have said the pipeline will be a safe and important component of the U.S. energy supply.

The pipeline’s path begins in northwestern West Virginia, then heads into Virginia, passing through Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin counties before connecting to a compressor station in Pittsylvania County. 

Mountain Valley Pipeline officials say the project already is more than 90% complete, but opponents dispute that claim.

Matt Busse is the business reporter for Cardinal News. Matt spent nearly 19 years at The News & Advance,...