Pipeline fight escalates along Virginia/West Virginia border

Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the company attempting to construct the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline began cutting trees along the route in the Jefferson National Forest — and in response, landowners and activists are ratcheting up efforts to block or delay construction.

A group of tree-sitters set up camp 60 feet off the ground along the pipeline’s route on Peter’s Mountain in West Virginia near the Virginia border on Feb. 26. Though the tree-sitters have had interactions with law enforcement as well as Mountain Valley security, and had a restraining order levied against them, there have been no attempts to physically remove them.

Many feared this might change when the U.S. Forest Service announced road closures near the site over the weekend. Sixteen days into the sit-in, however, as a judge in West Virginia seems poised to grant an injunction against them, it’s still unclear how that can even be done.

Weathering Monday’s snow storm and freezing temperatures, the activists documented tree cutting near their location even as snow fell (below).

Peters Mountain treesit in path of Mountain Valley Pipeline – with drone footage

Check out this drone footage of the tree sit! There's also footage here of trees being felled in the snowstorm on Monday right up to the base of the sit.Currently, the only thing physically standing in the way of pipeline construction is the treesit on Peters Mountain. People in trees are doing what our "representatives" and "regulators" refuse to do — they're protecting land, water, and communities of Appalachia from corporations that believe their money gives them the right to pillage this land and pollute our water.Please donate to support pipeline resistance in Appalachia: bit.ly/SupportMVPResistance

Posted by Appalachians Against Pipelines on Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On the Virginia side of the border, groups opposed to the pipeline have voiced support for the tree-sit, and there’s been talk of direct actions. Exactly what form that will take remains to be seen, however.

“That would be speculation on my part,” Mara Robbins, an organizer with Preserve Floyd, said when asked how far people might be willing to go. “But I can tell you for three months I watched my community get strong-armed by these corporations. Land surveyors would show up at front doors and knock without even having sent a letter and tell them that they couldn’t say no. I mean, the harassment, the underhanded nature of the way that they went about it was horrible. It was abusive.”

The fight against the MVP and its sister project, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, has been raging in rural parts of the state for four years. Activists have shown up at public meetings and committee hearings, and held dozens of protests including large actions that ended in arrests.

“In front of the DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] last fall, in front of the governor’s mansion a year and a half ago. I mean, people have taken symbolic direct action,” Robbins said. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens when that direct action is literally standing in the way of chain saws — at this point. Hopefully it won’t come to standing in the way of bulldozers. I don’t think we’ll get that far. I think it’ll get shut down before that happens.”

Her group is one of several organizing a statewide demonstration in support of the tree-sitters scheduled for Thursday.

As urgent as this fight may seem, it may also be coming to an end relatively soon, or at least a hiatus. MVP is expected to cease tree cutting at the end of the month thanks, at least in part, to the existence of a native endangered bat. According to the project’s Biological Assessment report, the company will limit tree work to between November 15 and March 31 in order to protect the Indiana Bat, which roosts in the bark of trees. (Preserve Floyd made it their mascot.)

In the longer term, one hope is that investors will get tired of the long series of delays and pull their money out of the project. This was a tactic in the earlier fight against the Keystone XL project as well.

Robbins pointed to the recent move by EQT, the company constructing the pipeline, to split its pipeline and drilling operations into two separate businesses as a sign that even they are worried about the prospect of not being able to complete the project.

The issue marked a key difference between Governor Northam and his opponent, Tom Perriello, in last year’s Democratic primary and even led some to pledge not to vote for Northam in the general election unless he changed his position. Though the projects weren’t typically part of his campaign speeches, they were occasionally thrust into the spotlight at his events.  Student activists stormed the stages at rallies, unfurled anti-pipeline banners, and shouted until they were removed by police. Even Northam’s victory party was interrupted by one such action.

So it’s no surprise the governor has remained a central target of the ongoing anti-pipeline campaigns.

“This is the environmental devastation that’s coming,” Richard Averitt, a Nelson County resident, said in a video posted to Facebook. Crews could be seen cutting down trees outside of the Wintergreen Ski Resort behind him for the Atlanta Coast Pipeline. “This, Northam, is your legacy. You had a chance to do something about this. You still have a chance to do something about this.”

The pipeline issues are seen by many as part of a larger fight against the influence of the state’s largest electric utility, Dominion, in state politics. In the 2017 race, Perriello, all three Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor, and dozens of Democratic candidates running for the House of Delegates pledged not to take campaign funds from the company, which is also the largest political contributor in the state.

Northam has taken almost $200,000 from Dominion over the course of his political career, including $50,000 for his inauguration.

In the first General Assembly session since the election, the utility has already won a series of legislative victories despite the public backlash against it. A bill to rework how the company handles investment in new infrastructure and how it charges its customers, which Dominion helped write, was signed into law on Friday.