The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday approved critical water-crossing permits for Williams Cos.' contentious $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline Project, which would transport Marcellus Shale natural gas from Northeastern Pennsylvania to Southern states.

The regulatory agency announced that it had approved the required Chapter 105 water-obstruction and encroachment permits and Chapter 102 erosion and sedimentation-control permits for the 180-mile pipeline. The permits cover 10 counties affected by the pipeline.

The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, marked in red, would interconnect with several other pipelines owned by Williams Cos.
Atlantic Sunrise
The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, marked in red, would interconnect with several other pipelines owned by Williams Cos.

DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell promised that the agency would closely monitor construction to ensure compliance with environmental regulations. "This is not the end of DEP oversight of this project," he said in a statement.

Environmental and community groups, which have fiercely opposed the project, can challenge the permits before the state Environmental Hearing Board. The project still requires final approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

On Thursday, Williams Cos. hailed the DEP permit approval and said construction was to begin in early fall.

"This vital project will leverage existing infrastructure to deliver economic growth and help millions of Americans gain access to affordable Pennsylvania-produced clean-burning natural gas," Alan Armstrong, Williams' president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

The pipeline, technically an expansion of the Transco pipeline owned by Williams, is designed to move 1.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day, which the company says is enough to supply seven million homes. Some of the gas also may be destined for export through the Cove Point liquefied-natural-gas terminal on Chesapeake Bay in Lusby, Md., which is set to begin operations in the coming months.

The project has aroused strong opposition from climate activists, including a Roman Catholic order of nuns, the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, who erected an outdoor chapel on the pipeline's path in July rather than sign over an easement to the pipeline company.

But the nuns' arguments that the pipeline would infringe upon their right to freedom of religion failed to win over U.S. District Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl, who on Aug. 23 granted the pipeline company's request to condemn easements on the religious order's property, as well as four other landowners who objected to the project.

"The Adorers have failed to establish how Transco's possession of the right of way on their land will in any way affect their ability to practice their faith and spread their message," the judge wrote in a memorandum. "They have not presented one piece of evidence that demonstrates how their religious beliefs will be abridged in any way."

The nuns say they plan to pursue other legal claims that the pipeline would violate their right to religious exercise.

Staff Writer Frank Kummer contributed to this article.