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Judge OKs pipeline project

A federal judge in Columbus ruled Friday that Marathon-Ashland may proceed with its pipeline construction.

"We won," said Marathon-Ashland spokeswoman Jennifer Robinson. "It means that our construction permits are valid, and we're extremely pleased. So, what this means is that we can move forward with construction and get down to the business of moving on with the pipeline."

At the end of August, Stop the Ohio Pipeline (STOP) filed actions against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Ohio River Pipeline (ORPL), LLC, a Marathon-Ashland subsidiary; the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency; and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The summary judgment in the suit against the Corps requested by STOP on the grounds that the Corps violated federal laws and regulations governing its approval of its permit issued to ORPL was denied. However, the summary judgment requested by Marathon-Ashland and ORPL, which sought to have a summary judgment on the administrative record in their favor, was granted.

The suit filed against the Corps stated that the agency acted unlawfully in failing to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before approving the pipeline and the Corps' environmental assessment, finding the pipeline created no significant harm, was "superficial, inadequate, and unlawful." Also, the suit alleges that the Corps did not meaningfully consider public comments and that some of the pipeline's environmental impacts received no meaningful consideration by the Corps.

Judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr. wrote in his ruling that the Corps issued an Environmental Assessment (EA), which determines if an EIS is needed. When the Corps prepared the EA, it examined potential individual and cumulative effects as well as the social and economic impacts of the project. The Corps also conducted two public hearings and solicited written comments from the public to permit interested parties to make statements regarding the project. ORPL prepared a summary and response to the oral and written public comments and provided it to the Corps.

The Corps then determined, based on the EA, that the pipeline project would create no significant environmental impact and determined that "no short- or long-term significant adverse impacts are expected as a result of this proposal," Sargus wrote.

STOP also contended that the Corps never specifically assessed risks to the environment and the public posed by potential leaks and spills from the pipeline. The public, STOP alleged, expressed concern that accidental release of the petroleum products from the pipeline would cause explosions and fire that could seriously harm the environment.

STOP claimed the Corps inappropriately deferred to the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) report on all safety issues because the OPS did not actually assess the significance of leaks and spills in the report.

However, the court concluded that the Corps properly solicited and considered the OPS evaluation, Sargus wrote.

An agency may fulfill its obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires an EIS, if the issuance of a permit would significantly affect the quality of the human environment by conducting an independent evaluation of environmental impacts by reviewing and relying on the information, data and conclusions by other state or federal agencies, Sargus wrote. NEPA encourages lead agencies consult with other agencies whose area of expertise is superior to its own.

The Corps requested that OPS evaluate the potential for leaks and spills, Sargus wrote, and in turn, OPS regional officers attended various meetings with ORPL, other public agencies and two public hearings.

Also, Sargus wrote that the Corps evaluated different methods of petroleum transportation such as using trucks, trains and barges but determined that the environmental risks and costs of transportation would exceed that of the pipeline.

STOP also alleged that the pipeline project was unnecessary and that ORPL's determination that demand for petroleum would increase 2.9 percent per year for the next 10 years was unsubstantiated. However, Sargus ruled that evidence of a rapid growth in petroleum demand exists in Central Ohio.

Also, Sargus ruled that the Corps did not fail to address the impacts of wildlife habitat loss and forest fragmentation in the Hocking Hills State Forest, in which 17 miles of the pipeline run.

Richard Sahli, a Columbus attorney representing STOP, could not be reached for comment on Saturday.

Robinson said Marathon-Ashland has completed more than 100 miles of construction staking and clearing and has more than 21 miles of pipe already down.