Green Groups Sue Army Corps of Engineers Over Nationwide Pipeline Permit

“There’s simply no justification for allowing destructive and dangerous pipelines to avoid rigorous environmental review.”

By Brett Wilkins, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 5-3-2021

In December 2016, the Belle Fourche pipeline spilled 180,000 gallons of crude oil into the Ash Coulee Creek in North Dakota, just three hours’ drive from the site of a massive Indigenous-led protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. (Photo: Jennifer Skjod/North Dakota Department of Health)

Five eco-advocacy groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Monday for allegedly violating federal law by issuing a nationwide fossil fuel pipeline permit without adequate analysis of its environmental impacts.

The lawsuit (pdf)—filed in a federal district court in Montanta by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Sierra Club, Montana Environmental Information Center, Friends of the Earth, and Waterkeeper Alliance Inc.—accuses the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) of violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act by reissuing Nationwide Permit 12 (NWP 12) “without adequately assessing its significant direct, indirect, and cumulative environmental effects.”

NWPs are only meant to be issued when the permitted activity will have minimal adverse environmental impacts. They require no public notice and, according to CBD, “in many cases projects covered by them may be constructed without any notification to, or further review by, the corps.”

NWP 12—which provides a streamlined process to permit oil and gas pipelines to cross rivers, streams, and wetlands—was reissued in the final days of the Trump administration. CBD said in a statement announcing the lawsuit that in doing so, USACE “failed to analyze the environmental impacts of pipelines, including from oil spills and the destruction of tens of thousands of acres of waterways relied on by people and endangered wildlife.”

According to CBD:

The 2021 iteration of Nationwide Permit 12 will allow thousands of discharges of dredged or fill material into the nation’s waters and wetlands from oil and gas pipeline construction. The corps estimates that Permit 12 will be used 8,110 times per year, or an estimated 40,550 times over its expected five-year duration, resulting in impacts to approximately 3,075 acres of U.S. waters. These activities—which are approved with little or no environmental review—threaten iconic species like critically endangered sturgeon and whooping cranes, Florida manatees, and hundreds of kinds of migratory birds that need wetlands to survive.

The Biden administration allowed the reissuance of NWP 12 to proceed, even as President Joe Biden signed his day one “Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis,” which included rescinding the federal permit for the construction of the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

“While the Biden administration has called for a review of the nationwide permits… it allowed the new iteration of Nationwide Permit 12 to become effective before any changes could be made to ensure that communities, wildlife, and waterways are protected,” CBD said.

Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at CBD, argued in a statement that “there’s simply no justification for allowing destructive and dangerous pipelines to avoid rigorous environmental review, and it’s disheartening to see the corps continue to flaunt its obligation to protect our nation’s waters and imperiled wildlife.”

Hallie Templeton, deputy legal director at Friends of the Earth, said her organization is “extremely disappointed” that the Biden administration has allowed NWP 12 and other nationwide permits to go into effect.

“This move streamlines permitting for a range of dirty industries, like pipelines and offshore aquaculture, and allows the Army Corps to approve these projects without fulfilling mandated environmental reviews and consultations,” she added. “This is nothing short of blatant disregard for federal law and the range of serious environmental and socioeconomic harms that will occur.”

Last April, a federal judge ruled that USACE violated the ESA when it issued Nationwide Permit 12. The Trump administration ignored the ruling and reissued the permit.

The new lawsuit was filed on the same day that the Standing Rock Sioux were set to learn whether the Dakota Access Pipeline will be temporarily shut down for a court-ordered environmental review. The Biden administration has so far refused to cancel DAPL during the review period, despite campaign promises to improve relations with Indigenous tribes and transition the nation to clean energy.

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