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Judge hears arguments for and against two pipeline protesters sitting in trees

Judge hears arguments for and against two pipeline protesters sitting in trees

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Two pipeline protesters stuck to their positions in trees atop Bent Mountain on Tuesday while, in the valley below them, lawyers went to a federal courthouse to argue their fate.

Attorneys for the Mountain Valley Pipeline said that 61-year-old Theresa “Red” Terry and her daughter, Theresa Minor Terry, are blocking tree cutting for the natural gas pipeline and should be found in contempt of court.

They cited an order from U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth Dillon that gave Mountain Valley the power, through the laws of eminent domain, to run its pipeline through private land owned by the Terry family.

Roanoke attorney Tom Bondurant, who represents the Terrys, flipped that argument around — asserting it was Mountain Valley that should be held in contempt for misrepresenting to the court key facts during an earlier hearing in the condemnation proceedings.

After hearing several hours of testimony and arguments, Dillon said she will issue a written opinion “as quickly as I can.”

Some facts were not in dispute: The Terrys freely admit that they are attempting to stop construction of a natural gas pipeline that has been approved by regulatory agencies. Both sides agreed that the tree stands sit squarely in the pipeline’s path.

But the Terrys question the way Mountain Valley obtained an easement through their land using eminent domain, which allows the taking of private land for a public use.

Bondurant pointed to testimony in which a Mountain Valley official told Dillon in January that it needed access to the Terry property – along with land owned by about 300 other people opposed to the pipeline – in time to meet a March 31 deadline for tree cutting.

The deadline was imposed by federal protections of endangered or threatened species of bats that emerge from their hibernation caves in early spring and could be harmed by tree cutting.

“From the get-go, March 31 was the magic date,” Bondurant said. But when the deadline passed, Mountain Valley continued to cut trees — which prompted the Terrys to scramble up two of them on their Roanoke County land as chainsaw crews approached in early April.

Later, in a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Mountain Valley made it clear that the deadline applied only to a limited number of trees identified as bat habitats, and that it was continuing to cut the remaining ones along the pipeline’s 303-mile route through West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.

That much was clear all along, the company’s attorney told Dillon on Tuesday. “Mountain Valley Pipeline did not say it needed to fell all trees by March 31,” Wade Massie said. “There was no such testimony.”

The company now wants the Terrys to be held in contempt of court, fined, and forced to pay the costs incurred by delaying the project. It is also asking the judge to order the U.S. Marshals to get involved in efforts to remove the two women from their perches.

“I submit it’s going to take that to bring the situation to a close,” Massie 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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