A natural gas pipeline proposed to cross Virginia cleared two more regulatory hurdles last week, while Pennsylvania regulators announced a crackdown on multiple pollution violations that have occurred in the construction of another pipeline across that state.

Federal energy regulators gave a generally positive environmental assessment of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would carry gas from West Virginia through Virginia to North Carolina. The U.S. Forest Service, meanwhile, dropped earlier objections and made a draft decision to allow the project to run through George Washington National Forest.

In a final environmental impact statement on the 600-mile conduit, the staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission predicted that it would have some adverse effects on water resources and endangered species as well as forest and other habitats.

But the staff concluded that most, though not all, could be reduced to insignificant levels. It spelled out a list of safeguards to be followed, including requiring that the developers tunnel the pipeline beneath most major water bodies to be crossed and that special care be taken when working on steep slopes to avoid erosion.

A spokesman for Dominion, which with three other companies is developing the $5.1 billion project, welcomed the FERC assessment.

“With today's favorable report, we are confident we will receive final approval this fall and bring these important economic and environmental benefits to our region,” said company spokesman Aaron Ruby.

Opponents of the pipeline took issue with the FERC staff’s environmental appraisal and the Forest Service’s decision.

David Sligh, conservation director with the forest advocacy group Wild Virginia, called the FERC staff’s analysis “grossly deficient” and its conclusions “unsupported, as we expected.”

“What is more disappointing,” Sligh added, “is the Forest Service’s willingness to settle for this incomplete record and shoddy work to support its decision to allow this destructive project to cross and permanently damage our public lands.”

Last January, the Forest Service denied Dominion a special use permit for a preferred route through West Virginia’s Monongahela and Virginia’s George Washington national forests. It cited risks to the Cow Knob and Cheat Mountain salamanders and the West Virginia northern flying squirrel, all federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. After Dominion shifted the route, the Forest Service issued a draft decision on July 21 to permit construction affecting about 430 acres of the two forests — some of the largest intact forestland remaining in the Eastern United States.

Tony Tooke, USFS southern regional forester, said the decision “recognizes Forest Service efforts to provide for multiple uses, minimize impacts to natural resources, and to support federal policies that encourage energy infrastructure, jobs, and economic growth.”

The pipeline must still win approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission itself, which currently lacks a quorum because of vacancies that have yet to be filled. Opponents say they don’t expect any different outcome there, though, given the commission’s history of routinely approving such projects and the Trump administration’s vow to promote fossil fuel development.

“The FERC model for environmental review is irredeemably flawed,” contended Rick Webb, coordinator of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition.

Kevin McIntyre, the Virginia lawyer whom President Trump recently nominated to become the commission’s new chairman, has an “expansive” FERC practice “representing clients in all industry sectors,” the White House announcement noted. If approved by the Senate, McIntyre would fill the third vacancy on FERC’s five-member commission.

Pipeline opponents are instead gearing up for a series of three public hearings to be held in August by the state Department of Environmental Quality. State regulators are seeking comments on whether the pipeline, as planned, adequately protects water quality in Virginia.

“Given that FERC is a lost cause — it approves all projects — we’re shifting the focus to DEQ and the State Water Control Board’s 401 review process,” Webb said. Under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, states need to certify that a project will not impair water quality.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, state regulators announced late last week that they had taken enforcement actions after multiple spills of drilling fluids during the construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline.

The state Department of Environmental Protection issued violation notices, levied a nearly $90,000 fine and stopped construction on several sections of the 350-mile project after drilling fluid spilled into waterways and wetlands, including one adjacent to Letort Spring Run, a world-famous trout stream near Carlisle.

According to State Impact Pennsylvania, a reporting collaboration by two public radio stations, 61 spills of drilling mud have occurred from April through late June. Sunoco Logistics, originally the owner of the $3 billion project, has been issued four violation notices to date and was ordered in late June to stop drilling underneath Letort Spring Run, a tributary of Conodoguinet Creek in Cumberland County, which ultimately flows into the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg. The company recently merged with Energy Transfer Partners, based in Dallas, TX.

The state consent order came along with an $87,600 fine and a requirement that the company do more studies and come up with a plan to prevent spills before resuming construction.

“We continue to work with the DEP to ensure that Letort Spring Run is protected and that we are fully compliant with the consent order and the strict conditions of our permits,” pipeline spokesman Jeffrey Shields said.

The pipeline project has drawn fire from residents, environmental groups and several lawmakers, who have called for a halt to construction until the company can ensure better control over spills and other mishaps.

In South Central Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay region, the DEP reported in a press release that there had been seven spills in Lancaster County, three in Blair County and several others in Cumberland.

DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a statement that he expects his department to be issuing more violations as investigations progress.

“With so much concern about the Mariner East 2 pipeline, the public needs to know that DEP is taking its oversight and regulatory enforcement role seriously,” McDonnell said. “This project has raised questions about public health and the health of the environment, and it is important to be transparent about the issues that have arisen over the course of the construction.”

Drilling mud - a slurry of a bentonite, a nontoxic clay-like substance and potable water - is used to lubricate and cool drilling equipment when pipes are being extended underneath stream beds. Such horizontal drilling is done to minimize environmental impacts to wetlands, waterways, wildlife habitats and other sensitive areas during construction, the Sunoco spokesman said. 

“In addition to these immediate steps and penalties, DEP has numerous investigations of incidents under way, and anticipates additional enforcement actions against Sunoco for these violations,” McDonnell said. “I want to be clear: This is not the end of the road, but the beginning, and I want the people of Pennsylvania to know and be confident that DEP is exercising the fullest extent of our regulatory authority for this project.”