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Natural Gas Industry Again Beats a Tiny West Virginia County That Wanted to Control Its Destiny

A federal judge ruled that Fayette County must allow a natural gas compressor station, saying the federal Natural Gas Act takes precedence over local zoning rules.

A mine site near the Fayette County community of Kincade. (F. Brian Ferguson/Charleston Gazette-Mail)

This article was produced in partnership with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

A West Virginia county, whose elected leaders have vocally resisted natural gas industry operations, has again been told by a federal judge that it must allow the work to proceed.

U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver ruled Wednesday that Fayette County commissioners can’t use their county’s local zoning ordinance to block a compressor station proposed as part of a huge natural gas transmission pipeline. The federal Natural Gas Act, he said, trumps any local zoning rules when it comes to regulating pipelines and associated compressor stations.

It’s the second time in two years that Copenhaver has overruled efforts by Fayette leaders to protect their county from what they view as negative effects of the ongoing boom in West Virginia’s natural gas industry.

“I am disappointed in the decision, but I’m not surprised,” Fayette County Commission President Matt Wender said. “It’s very unfortunate that local governance is being ignored to the preference of the natural gas industry.”

Wender and Fayette County’s efforts were featured in a report published in May by ProPublica and the Gazette-Mail as part of a yearlong effort to examine the gas rush’s effects on West Virginia communities.

Fayette County has been trying to remake itself as a tourism hub, after a history of coal mining that, while it provided jobs, also left scars and a struggling economy as the coal industry bottomed out.

In June 2016, Copenhaver nullified a Fayette ordinance that banned the disposal of natural gas industry waste in the county. EQT Corp., the state’s second-largest natural gas producer, had filed the legal challenge. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his ruling.

The case decided Wednesday involved the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile project to carry gas from northwestern West Virginia to markets in the South and the East Coast. The pipeline’s developers, including EQT, want to build a large compressor station, called the Stallworth Compressor Station, in the southeastern corner of the county, a rural area of forests and farms. The pipeline itself has been the subject of heated citizen and environmental group opposition.

Mountain Valley Pipeline officials say the compressor station is “carefully designed” to “limit surface disturbance and minimize the overall environmental footprint,” according to court filings from the project’s lawyers. But Wender and the County Commission worried that it would be dirty and loud.

In November 2017, the commission turned down a request for a zoning change needed because the compressor station was proposed for an area where industrial activity isn’t allowed. The pipeline developers sued, and Copenhaver agreed with their argument that natural gas pipelines are governed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, not by county ordinances.

“MVP is pleased with the court’s decision,” said Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for the pipeline project.

Three weeks ago, construction of the pipeline was halted by the FERC, after the 4th Circuit ruled that some federal approvals by other agencies skirted environmental rules. But on Aug. 15 and again on Wednesday, the FERC issued follow-up orders that allowed work to resume in certain areas.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica want to tell the story of the changing landscape in West Virginia, and how coal and natural gas are affecting it. Where should we go in West Virginia? Call or text us at 347-244-2134 or send in your recommendations to [email protected].

Ken Ward Jr. covers the environment, workplace safety and energy, with a focus on coal and natural gas, for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @kenwardjr.

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Ken Ward Jr.

Ken Ward Jr. is a Distinguished Fellow in ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network and co-founder of Mountain State Spotlight, a statewide nonprofit civic news organization.

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