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3 Mountain Valley Pipeline opponents removed from legal effort to bring tree-sitters down

3 Mountain Valley Pipeline opponents removed from legal effort to bring tree-sitters down

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A Mountain Valley Pipeline opponent looks out from one of the tree-sits off Yellow Finch Lane in Montgomery County in mid-November. The protest, which has blocked pipeline construction for more than two years, continues, despite a judge’s Nov. 19 order that found the protesters in contempt of court.

Three people who were part of a tree-sit blockade of the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s path over a wooded slope in Montgomery County no longer face damages sought by a civil suit.

Phillip Flagg, Emma Howell and Evin Tyler Ugur were dismissed from the case Thursday by Circuit Judge Robert Turk.

Two unidentified pipeline foes remain in the tree stands off Yellow Finch Lane near Elliston, one month after being found in contempt of Turk’s order that they come down or be fined $500 a day.

As part of a temporary injunction obtained by Mountain Valley, Turk also ordered sheriff’s deputies to “take such measures as are necessary to remove them.”

There has been no effort so far to extract the tree-sitters, according to a Thursday post by one of the protesters on the Facebook page of Appalachians Against Pipelines.

“So far no heavy machinery has made any attempts to approach the sits, though the cops have certainly discussed it,” said a person identified only as “Tanager.” The post showed snow-covered tree limbs and a portion of one of the tree stands.

On Dec. 8 and 9, law enforcement and plain-clothes officials showed up to take photographs, make measurements and discuss how they might extract the sitters from their posts about 50 feet up a white pine and a chestnut oak, Tanager said.

In the past, police have reached and removed aerial protesters by using a mechanized lift that was driven to the site. The steep terrain and tall trees that surround these tree-sitters would likely complicate such an effort.

The tree-sits have been occupied by changing shifts of protesters since Sept. 5, 2018, making it the longest continuing blockade of a pipeline that opponents say is causing environmental damage and will contribute to climate change.

But the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has found that there is a public need for the natural gas the pipeline will transport, Mountain Valley counters, and the protesters have delayed its plans to complete construction of the 303-mile transmission line.

Mountain Valley does not know who the protesters are, referring to them in court papers as “tree sitter 1” and “tree sitter 2.” A third tree stand nearby is apparently no longer occupied.

Flagg, Howell and Ugur were identified by the company and served with court papers. As part of a deal reached Nov. 12, they agreed to no longer participate in the tree-sits or other protests in exchange for Mountain Valley’s promise not to seek damages against them.

In his order Thursday, Turk wrote that “based on the representations” of the three defendants, they will not return to the protest site.

Although Turk dismissed the claim for damages against the trio, he permanently barred them from entering any Mountain Valley construction site and forbade them from interfering with pipeline officials.

The civil action remains pending against the other defendants.

Staff writer Tonia Moxley contributed to this report.

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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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