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Judge directs Mountain Valley to take another stab at surveying where access has been denied

Judge directs Mountain Valley to take another stab at surveying where access has been denied

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CHRISTIANSBURG — Mountain Valley Pipeline took to court Thursday another regional resident who had refused access to his property by pipeline route surveyors but came away without the outcome sought — a temporary injunction barring the property owner from interfering with surveying.

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Robert Turk did not reject Mountain Valley’s request for the injunction. Instead, Turk said he was taking the request under advisement and directed the pipeline company to send new certified letters to property owner Peter Montgomery identifying dates when survey crews would plan to enter Montgomery’s three-acre property off Mount Tabor Road.

Wade Massie, the lawyer representing Mountain Valley, reminded Turk that such letters had been tried before and that Montgomery had threatened to pursue criminal trespass charges if surveyors entered his property to study a route for the proposed natural gas pipeline.

Turk replied that the dates identified in those letters had passed and said new dates should be proposed by Mountain Valley.

After the hearing, Montgomery said he was disappointed that Turk had not rejected Mountain Valley’s request for a temporary injunction. He vowed to continue to oppose surveying of his property, noting that the 42-inch diameter buried pipeline likely would come close to his well and be within potentially dangerous proximity to his home if the pipeline ruptured.

“It’s life or death,” Montgomery said after the hearing. “My gut says to do all I can to fight this.”

A controversial state law, 56-49.01, allows natural gas companies to survey private property without an owner’s consent, thereby providing protection to surveyors against charges of criminal trespass. That’s true as long as the company follows the law’s guidelines for providing notice to the property owner, via certified mail, of surveyors’ intent to enter the property and when that entry will occur.

To date, the law has survived challenges in state and federal courts. And an effort to repeal the statute during the General Assembly this year was short-lived.

Montgomery’s attorney, Charles “Chip” Lollar, argued Thursday that Mountain Valley’s request for a temporary injunction failed to meet the legal standard for demonstrating that the pipeline company would suffer “irreparable harm” if surveying of Montgomery’s property could not be completed.

Massie told Turk that Mountain Valley or its survey crew contractors could suffer irreparable harm if the survey did not move forward or if the surveyors were charged with criminal trespass. He said gathering the survey information was necessary to comply with the regulatory process outlined by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Mountain Valley Pipeline is a joint venture whose partners include EQT Corp., NextEra Energy and RGC Midstream and others. RGC Midstream, like Roanoke Gas, is a subsidiary of Roanoke-based RGC Resources.

Mountain Valley wants to build a 301-mile pipeline that would transport natural gas at high pressure from Wetzel County, West Virginia, to another transmission pipeline in Pittsylvania County.

As an interstate pipeline, the $3.5 billion project must be approved by FERC before construction can begin. FERC announced in late June that it plans to issue this month a draft environmental impact statement for the project.

As currently routed, the pipeline would travel through the Virginia counties of Giles, Montgomery, Craig, Roanoke and Franklin on the way to Pittsylvania County.

Lollar told Turk Thursday that surveying Montgomery’s property was not a regulatory necessity because FERC often issues conditional certificates allowing pipeline projects to proceed as long as conditions, such as completing surveys, are met.

Lollar said Montgomery would agree to surveying if and when FERC approves the Mountain Valley project. FERC’s approval would give Mountain Valley access to eminent domain to acquire easements across private property if negotiations for paying for the easement fail to identify an agreeable sum.

In May, after a hearing in Roanoke County Circuit Court, Judge David Carson denied Mountain Valley’s request for an injunction that would have prohibited Bent Mountain resident Fred Vest from interfering with surveyors who wanted to study his property.

Instead, Carson ordered Vest and his attorney to meet with Mountain Valley and come up with a date when surveying could occur — something that subsequently happened.

Separately, Mountain Valley sued Vest for $25,000 in damages, alleging that his interference with surveying had caused the company added expense and other harm. Later, Vest filed a countersuit, seeking $475,000 in compensatory and punitive damages from the pipeline company. No trial dates have been set in those cases, according to court records.

Records also show that Mountain Valley is seeking injunctions against at least two other property owners in the region who have denied access for surveying: Thomas and Bonnie Triplett in Montgomery County and James and Kathy Chandler in Roanoke County.

Bonnie Triplett attended Thursday’s hearing. She reiterated an argument Lollar made to Turk: The fact that Mountain Valley’s certified letters identify a range of dates when surveys could occur make it tough for property owners to know when to stay home to monitor the work.

“Our stance is, if they are on our land we have a right to know what they’re doing,” Triplett said. “We should know when they’re coming on our land. We should be able to walk with them.”

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