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Court pauses Atlantic Sunrise pipeline construction to review emergency order

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A federal appeals court ruled Monday that Williams Partners LP must temporarily halt construction on the controversial Transco pipeline extension set to run through Lancaster, Lebanon and eight other Pennsylvania counties.

UPDATE, NOV. 9: Judges have denied pipeline opponents' request for an emergency stay and have allowed Williams Partners to restart construction.

The order, filed in the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, is in response to an emergency stay requested on Oct. 30 by several local and national anti-pipeline groups.

Monday's order does not grant the requested emergency stay, which asks for a comprehensive look at the project's environmental impact, but rather gives the courts time to review the request.

Williams filed its own motion Tuesday, asking the courts for more clarification on the order. The company says it has stopped construction activity except for work related to environmental controls.

"Atlantic Sunrise has undergone a nearly four-year, extensive review process and is operating and being constructed in compliance with all state and federal permits," Williams Partners COO Micheal Dunn said in a news release. "These current actions by opponents of American energy are, this morning, idling thousands of workers in Pennsylvania and could delay the benefits of low-cost energy delivery to millions of American families."

Williams subsidiary Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co. started site work on the planned 186-mile pipeline in September after several years of back-and-forth with state and federal regulators. The company drew and continues to draw criticism from groups worried about the pipeline's environmental impact and safety. Some residents have also objected to Williams' decision to use eminent domain proceedings to seize easements from about 30 of the 1,000 landowners in the pipeline's path, and others have criticized the company for releasing what they feel are exaggerated accounts of the project's economic impact.

While Williams has had crews working simultaneously along several parts of the pipeline's path, the company focused its earliest construction efforts on a property near Columbia owned by The Adorers of the Blood of Christ, an order of Catholic nuns who oppose the project on the grounds that their religion requires them to protect natural resources. The nuns drew national attention this summer when they let protesters build a simple outdoor chapel in the pipeline's path.

Williams hoped to finish its work on the Adorers' land as quickly as possible so as to minimize disruptions on the property, which has attracted scores of protesters since construction began, company spokesman Chris Stockton said last week. This tactic drew further criticism from the anti-pipeline groups, who felt Williams was trying to rush construction at the site before courts could consider a religious freedom appeal the nuns recently filed. 

National environmental protection organizations Appalachian Mountain Advocates and Sierra Club led efforts for the requested emergency stay. The organizations are working alongside several local activist groups, including Lancaster Against Pipelines, Lebanon Pipeline Awareness and Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County.

Their request asks the court for "a comprehensive environmental review that fully accounts for the project's short- and long-term impacts, as well as the public need for the project," according to a news release from the Sierra Club.

Advocates from the group behind the requested stay see Monday's order as a step in the right direction for their cause, although it was not immediately clear Tuesday what long-term impact the temporary order would have on the project.

"The arrogance of the industry is on full display as they rush this project and silence protestors while there are still pending cases in court," Mark Clatterbuck, co-founder of Lancaster Against Pipelines, said in a Sierra Club news release. "Transco wouldn't be rushing if they weren't worried and I hope this is the beginning of a turning tide that will check the fossil fuel industry, an industry that has been rolling over the rights of communities for years."

Industry groups - including the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, Laborers’ International Union of North America and Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance - have spoken out against Monday's order, saying in statements provided to the media by Williams Partners that the pause unfairly punishes construction crews making a living from the project.

"Beyond the jobs affected, it's also important to understand the potential for environmental risks related to start-and-stop construction activity," Kurt Knaus, spokesman for the Energy Infrastructure Alliance, said in a statement. "That makes it even more critical for a speedy solution."

The pipeline is part of Williams Partners' Atlantic Sunrise project, which includes the pipeline extension and other efforts to help the Oklahoma-based company capitalize on Pennsylvania's share of the Marcellus Shale region. The shale region became a major draw to energy companies about a decade ago when businesses realized they could use a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract natural gas from the porous rock.

The pipeline extension running through Pennsylvania is formally the Central Penn extension to Williams' existing Transco line, but local people have commonly referred to it as the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline.

This story has been updated with further information from Williams Partners.

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Jennifer Wentz

Jennifer Wentz

Jennifer Wentz covers Lancaster County, York County, financial services, taxation and legal services. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at jwentz@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @jenni_wentz.

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