CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Work seems on the verge of beginning for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a $3.5 billion project to transport West Virginia natural gas over 303 miles.

The mammoth pipeline project has recently cleared a series of regulatory and judicial hurdles. Developers were aiming to start work clearing trees early this month.

“Although a specific start date has not been set, construction work is expected to begin in West Virginia with tree felling,” Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for MVP, stated in an email on Monday evening.

“Given the flexibility that was built into the initial project timeline, MVP continues to target an in-service date of late 2018.”

Several things have happened in recent days to clear the path for Mountain Valley Pipeline to get going.

This past Friday, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied a stay request by environmental groups.

The groups contend the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission never should have granted a certificate of public use for the project. They said a stay to halt the project was necessary because cutting trees, clearing land and digging ditches for the natural gas pipeline would cause “irreparable environmental harm.”

Also Friday, U.S. District Judge Irene Keeley granted approval for MVP to immediately move ahead with eminent domain on properties along the project’s path in northern West Virginia counties.

Keeley’s ruling, issued from the federal courthouse in Clarksburg, would apply to the counties in the northern district of the state.

In the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Southern District of West Virginia, Judge John Copenhaver has a 9:30 a.m. Wednesday preliminary injunction hearing on the pipeline project. That hearing could settle whether work now moves forward with the pipeline or whether residents disputing eminent domain can buy more time.

And in Virginia, where the pipeline leads, Judge Elizabeth Dillon last week rejected the MVP’s request for immediate access to about 300 disputed parcels.

Mountain Valley Pipeline’s developers have been saying work to clear trees along the pathway needs to begin this month for the project to stay on track. The developers say the project needs to stay on its timeline to comply with contracts to supply natural gas.

The construction schedule hinges on clearing trees by this March 31 to comply with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations protecting bat and migratory bird habitats.

If MVP does not finish its tree clearing by then, it won’t be able to until next November 15, the company contends.

As of December, MVP had received all of the necessary federal permits required for the project. In early January, the MVP project team started filing requests for partial Notices to Proceed.

Most of the partial Notices to Proceed are for construction work primarily related to laydown yards, access roads and compressor stations.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave permission in January for the pipeline project to start construction at six yards and 93 access roads in Wetzel, Harrison, Doddridge, Lewis and Braxton counties.

The work would only be where Mountain Valley Pipeline has already gotten landowner permission for the construction.

Meanwhile, Cox said, the pipeline project has been busy with activities leading up to construction.

“The MVP project team has been conducting safety and environmental training for work crews, inspectors, and monitors; and this training will continue throughout the construction process,” Cox wrote.

The pipeline would go through Greenbrier, Monroe, Nicholas, Summers, Braxton, Harrison, Lewis, Webster and Wetzel counties in West Virginia. It is meant to deliver natural gas into southern Virginia.

Construction will proceed in 11 distinct segments along the pipeline’s length, MVP says.

After crews fell trees on properties used for service facilities and access roads, as well as those with endangered species, MVP’s contractors will work in a line to excavate and install pipeline along each of the 11 segments.

Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, has expressed concerns all along about the possible effects of such a large pipeline project — and what resources West Virginia officials will be able to put toward overseeing it.

Rosser agreed that the project seems about ready to get underway in earnest. Environmental groups are still requesting that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reconsider the pipeline’s certification, but it’s likely construction would start before the appeal is complete.

“People feel that as these permits are granted that the writing’s on the wall,” Rosser said. “There still, I think, will be resistance from property owners who don’t want any part of this, and I think there will be a double-down effort to monitor the construction this from citizens and landowners.”

Rosser said she is concerned not only about Mountain Valley Pipeline but also about similar projects such as Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountaineer Xpress, all on a similar timeline. She wonders whether West Virginia’s Division of Environmental Protection will be able to handle all the oversight.

“We have overall concerns about DEP’s ability and capacity to monitor these projects because we’re not just talking about MVP,” she said. “We’re talking about Atlantic Coast Pipeline. We’re talking about Mountaineer Xpress pipeline, the pipeline in the Eastern Panhandle.

“All of these look like they might be constructed at the same time, so we’re talking hundreds of miles of pipelines, over a thousand stream crossings and the DEP has about a half-dozen inspectors. We think they’re going to find that isn’t enough.”

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