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Mountain Valley tree-cutters resume work, as tree-sitters continue their protest

Mountain Valley tree-cutters resume work, as tree-sitters continue their protest

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ELLISTON — As spring approaches, so have construction workers building the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Crews of tree-cutters gathered on recent mornings near Yellow Finch Lane in Montgomery County, where two protesters are occupying tree stands that block work on a small segment of the 303-mile natural gas pipeline.

One of the tree-sitters, known publicly only as Acre, said the sound of chainsaws could be heard Monday from his spot about 50 feet above the ground in a chestnut oak. It came as an unneeded reminder to Acre that Mountain Valley and law enforcement officials may soon attempt to remove him and another tree-sitter.

“It’s easier to be in the trees when the weather is nicer, but it also means that MVP is starting to want to work again,” he said.

Company spokeswoman Natalie Cox said that construction — which over the winter has been limited largely to erosion- and sediment-control measures — is continuing “in compliance with all environmental regulations and guidelines.”

“There are varying factors that determine construction activities and scheduling, including weather and the type of construction work remaining for each section of the route,” Cox wrote in an email Monday.

The email did not include details about what is being done in the area of the tree-sits.

Last November, a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge issued a temporary injunction sought by Mountain Valley that ordered the tree-sitters to come down or face a forced removal by sheriff’s deputies.

Since then, the sheriff’s office and Virginia State Police have discussed several options, the most recent one being the use of a crane to extract the protesters from above, according to emails obtained last month through an open-records request.

There was no sign of police activity Monday morning at the tree-sits.

“We’re here until they physically remove us,” Acre said from a wooden platform covered by plastic tarps. “You don’t want a pipeline to be built, but a successful tree-sit usually involves an extraction. So it’s something I’m prepared for.”

Also Monday, affidavits were filed in circuit court showing that the tree-sitters had been served a copy of the injunction issued by Judge Robert Turk, according to online court records.

Although initial service was made in November, the protesters occupying the tree-sits often change, and the filing appeared to be an effort by Mountain Valley to ensure that the current occupants of the tree stands had proper notice.

The two aerial blockades were erected on a steep, wooded slope on Sept. 5, 2018, and have been occupied ever since by mostly anonymous protesters who say the huge buried pipeline will scar the scenic landscape and pollute its streams and rivers.

Mountain Valley has been cited repeatedly by state regulators for allowing muddy runoff to escape from construction areas in West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.

In one email obtained by The Roanoke Times, a state police sergeant told his supervisor that Montgomery County Sheriff Hark Partin had said in November that he was planning to post deputies at the tree-sit to make sure the protesters did not receive food or other support from the ground.

Both Montgomery County and state police officials have declined to comment on the extraction efforts.

Acre said there has been no attempt to seal off the area. When other pipeline protesters occupied trees in the Jefferson National Forest two years ago, he said, law enforcement officers eventually forced them down by cutting off their supplies of food and water.

That created controversy that Acre speculated Montgomery County did not want to encounter.

“Starving some hippies out of the trees wouldn’t look good,” he said.

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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