Author:Martin, Edward

Dignitaries who broke ground in April on an Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in Northampton County wore ceremonial hard hats, fitting for the headache-ridden natural-gas line that will span 195 miles of the state. After a flurry of legal challenges, a completion date for the pipeline is now uncertain.

A federal appeals court suspended work on the project twice in December, citing potential harm to endangered and threatened species in West Virginia and Virginia and faulting the U.S. Forest Service for what it called abdicating its responsibility to protect national forests.

The decisions left the pipeline, being built by a consortium of Duke Energy, Virginia-based Dominion Energy and Atlanta-based Southern Company Gas, dangling. Duke spokeswoman Tammie McGee previously said the $6.5 billion project would be finished in North Carolina in 2019 and a year later over its entire three-state, 600-mile length. The project plans to pump natural gas from fracking fields in West Virginia to Robeson County in a likely boost for eastern North Carolina's economy.

The group, operating as Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or ACP, temporarily stopped work on the entire project in December and immediately appealed both rulings, says Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby. "We think the ruling was unwarranted and overly broad, but out of an abundance of caution, we halted all work," Ruby said of the initial decision that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted hastily in issuing permits and might have failed to protect wildlife.

The second ruling faulted the government agency for not protecting the Appalachian Trail, which is part of the National Park System, and several national forests in Virginia and West Virginia.

The latest snags come after more than 300 route changes and lawsuits from property owners, environmentalists and others, plus a dispute between N.C. lawmakers and Gov. Roy Cooper over use of funds received from project backers.

Charlottesville, Va.-based Southern Environmental Law Center and partners such as the Sierra Club have challenged permits in court, arguing that ACP inflates benefits and minimizes environmental consequences. The lawsuits mainly target five regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, rather than the utilities.

The first ruling has two parts. One covers all 600 miles, while the other covers only 100 miles in Virginia and West Virginia. ACP immediately asked the court to clarify if...

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