The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) on Tuesday denied Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC’s (ACP) special use permit application to cross the Monongahela and George Washington national forests in West Virginia and Virginia as described in the pipeline’s proposed route.

In a letter to FERC, USFS said it could not approve the current proposed route due to the potential impacts to several protected species and their habitats.

To continue its application process, USFS said, ACP will have to develop an alternative route that avoids “the Cheat Mountain and Cow Knob salamanders and their habitats, the West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel and its habitat and spruce ecosystem restoration areas. These resources, and any other resources that are of such irreplaceable character that minimization and compensation measures may not be adequate or appropriate, should be avoided.”

Granting ACP’s special use permit would violate a 1994 conservation agreement between USFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the Cow Knob salamander and “avoid actions which may cause” the species “to become threatened or endangered,” USFS said. The preservation of suitable habitat in the Monongahela National Forest is critical to efforts to promote the continued recovery of the West Virginia northern flying squirrel, the agency said.

The current proposed route for the 550-mile, 1.5 Bcf/d pipeline would start in Harrison County, WV, and travel into Virginia and North Carolina.

In response to the USFS rejection, ACP said it “will continue to work with” the agency “to find a route for the interstate natural gas pipeline that is needed to bring reliable supplies of energy to Virginia and North Carolina. Today’s letter is part of the permitting process as we work cooperatively to find the best route with the least impact. We appreciate the USFS’s examination of this option and remain confident we will find an acceptable route.”

ACP spokesman Aaron Ruby told NGI that the decision from USFS was not entirely surprising given the agency had identified its concerns previously (see Daily GPI, Dec. 16, 2015; Dec. 9, 2015). Ruby said ACP has been communicating with USFS and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and had already started work on evaluating possible alternatives prior to Tuesday’s letter.

“For a project of this scope and scale, the route selection is a continuously evolving process” that requires working with multiple stakeholders, including USFS, Ruby said. “This clearly demonstrates this is how the process is designed to work and shows the process is working.”

Ruby indicated that the USFS decision will not alter ACP’s tentative timetable, which would see the pipeline begin construction later this year, with an in-service date in 4Q2018 (see Daily GPI, Sept. 18, 2015).

Since it was announced in 2014 (see Daily GPI, Sept. 2, 2014), the ACP, backed by a joint venture between Dominion, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources, has been met with vocal opposition from environmental groups and landowners. The ACP’s plans to cross the two national forests have been a major point of contention.

The Southern Environmental Law Center said the USFS rejection shows that the planning process for the pipeline has been “shallow” and has “[ignored] calls to carefully analyze less destructive alternatives.”

“Dominion stubbornly persisted on a route that was identified as severely destructive from the start,” senior attorney Greg Buppert said. “It is time for them to step back and truly reconsider the need for this pipeline at all.”