Federal agency approved pipeline permits without looking at imperiled bat habitat

By Amy Joseph Landon

Source: WFPL News
By Ryan Van Velzer
March 1, 2022

It doesn’t take a biologist to understand that bats, generally speaking, live in caves. Two widely known facts about bats: they make caves their home, and they inspire masked vigilantes.

But federal agencies failed to actually look in caves for imperiled bats while approving permits to build a natural gas pipeline in Kentucky.

A pair of environmental organizations announced Monday they plan to sue the federal government for permitting the proposed Bullitt County pipeline without fully considering the impacts on those imperiled bat species.

Utility regulators first granted Louisville Gas and Electric approval to build the 12-mile long pipeline in 2017. The utility said the pipeline would help serve and fuel development in the communities of Shepherdsville, Mount Washington, Lebanon Junction and Clermont.

The proposed route would pass through conservation lands held by Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. Along the route, the pipeline would remove nearly 40 acres of forest, cross at least six major waterways impacting wetlands, sinkholes and habitat for more than a half-dozen threatened or endangered species, according to an LG&E stormwater pollution prevention plan.

LG&E has received a number of major permits necessary for construction. Among them are federal permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But on Monday, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Kentucky Resources Council alleged those federal agencies didn’t do the necessary research to understand how the pipeline would affect habitat for Indiana bats, northern long-eared bats and gray bats, all of which are listed as threatened or endangered.

“This issue is that no one ever did a scientifically legitimate search for caves,” said Perrin de Jong, Center for Biological Diversity staff attorney.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

Cedar Creek is one of the waterways Bernheim Arboretum says would be impacted by construction of LG&E’s natural gas pipeline.

LG&E hired an independent contractor to examine the environmental impacts of the proposed pipeline. De Jong said the federal agencies based their approval on that contractor’s conclusions.

That contractor, Cardno, conducted a survey of threatened and endangered species that included the bats, but never conducted a cave survey, according to Cardno’s records. That’s despite the fact that caves and sinkholes are common in Kentucky’s karst environment and are an important winter habitat for all three imperiled bat species.

That report did say that “no caves were observed during field surveys,” according to Cardno’s records. But Kentucky Resources Council Director Ashley WiIlmes says the visual survey was inadequate and the federal government failed to meet legal obligations under the Endangered Species Act.

“The rubber-stamping of this pipeline project is particularly concerning given that LG&E’s plans to clear-cut trees, impact water resources and destroy bat habitat — including within the Cedar Grove Wildlife Corridor — are primarily for the benefit of the Jim Beam distillery,” Wilmes said.

In a separate report, Cardno noted the presence of sinkholes along the project corridor as early as 2017 while describing the impacts on another threatened species, a small white flower known as the Kentucky glade cress.

““[T]he soils in this area were observed as thin, bare (non-existent) in several locations, and often contained exposed rock layers within and adjacent to sinkholes,” the report stated.

A spokesperson for the Corps. Engineers said it doesn’t comment on potential litigation, but the agency is committed to balancing development and environmental protection. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not immediately return a request for comment.

The environmental groups decided to provide a 60 day notice to the federal agencies ahead of filing the lawsuit in hopes they recognize their errors and “self correct,” de Jong said.

“We are hoping that the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps. of Engineers will recognize the mistakes they made,” he said. “And properly do the analyses to ensure the endangered bat species that are in the area are properly protected from jeopardy.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for LG&E said it is dedicated to protecting the environment and will work to mitigate impacts from the construction and operation of the pipeline.

“After a thorough review, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the project would not jeopardize threatened or endangered species,” said Chrs Whelan, LG&E spokesperson.

Back in 2015, Beam Suntory, the makers of Jim Beam bourbon, asked LG&E to supply additional natural gas to expand operations at its flagship site in Clermont, but didn’t want to pay for a new gas pipeline, according to a timeline assembled by Kevin Smith, then-vice president of public affairs for Beam Suntory.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

The proposed path for the pipeline on Bernheim property.

Instead, Louisville Gas and Electric sought and received initial approval from utility regulators in 2017 to build the pipeline through Bullitt County at ratepayers’ expense.

LG&E says the pipeline is designed to serve and fuel growth in Northern Bullitt County, but court records showed much of the gas load for the first five years would serve just one customer, Jim Beam of Beam Suntory.

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