Very little is publicly known about a very public critic of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Appalachians Against Pipelines established a Facebook page in February 2018, about the time that tree-sitters began their efforts to block construction of the massive natural gas pipeline.
Since then, the group has used social media as a megaphone to promote its agenda, while otherwise remaining largely invisible.
Mountain Valley is trying to find out who they are. In a subpoena recently filed in Roanoke’s federal court, the company asks Facebook to reveal the names and telephone numbers of those who established and maintain a page that has more than 21,000 followers.
Appalachians Against Pipelines says the subpoena is nothing more than an effort to intimidate and silence them — a position shared by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for privacy and free speech on the internet.
“It generally gives us concern when we see a company like MVP trying to unmask its critics,” said Adam Schwartz, a senior attorney with the San Francisco-based foundation.
The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the rights of critics to remain unnamed, noting that the practice can be traced back to the founders of the nation who published newspaper pieces anonymously out of fear of retaliation from the King of England.
In order for a company like Mountain Valley to acquire the names of the administrators of a Facebook page, it must meet a high standard of showing that its needs or concerns outweigh the First Amendment rights of the commenters, Schwartz said.
“The right to stay anonymous is not absolute,” he said.
Schwartz said it is not unheard of for a company to seek information about its opponents from the social media outlets they use. When a subpoena is contested, judges make case-by-case decisions.
Mountain Valley declined to comment Friday, saying that “details regarding any pending or potential litigation efforts cannot be provided at this time.”
The subpoena was filed Aug. 20 in connection with a pending case in U.S. District Court in Roanoke, where the company has been at odds for years with the owners of a Bent Mountain property through which the pipeline needs to pass.
Coles and Theresa “Red” Terry became concerned when construction crews began drilling through bedrock on their land last month in preparation for blasting to clear a path for the buried, 42-inch pipe.
They filed a request for an injunction to stop the blasting, saying that it threatened to contaminate their well water. The request was denied Aug. 13 by District Judge Elizabeth Dillon.
One week later, Mountain Valley filed its own request for an injunction, asking Dillon to order that protesters of the pipeline not interfere with work on the Terry property.
“On Aug. 11, in order to prevent the blasting from proceeding, protesters were invited to the property to position themselves along the edge of the easements,” the motion states. “Messages were posted on social media asking readers to join the protest.”
The motion does not mention Appalachians Against Pipelines.
But in an Aug. 11 post to the group’s Facebook page, a “call for support” suggested that supporters of the Terrys show up at their property, and instructed them to the page of another group, Water Is Life Protect It, for directions.
The subpoenas issued to Facebook ask for the administrators of both groups’ pages. Efforts to reach Water is Life Protect It for this story were unsuccessful.
Mountain Valley contends that the protesters — some of whom stood within 50 feet of live explosives while smoking cigarettes — were creating a risk to themselves and pipeline workers.
Dillon is being asked to order any observers on the Terry property to “remain a safe distance from blasting on the project.” The motion also asks that Coles and Red Terry be held in contempt of court for violating an earlier order that gave Mountain Valley possession of a 125-foot wide easement through their land under the laws of eminent domain.
Joe Sherman, a Norfolk attorney who represents the Terrys, said Friday that Mountain Valley is seeking an injunction that would give it control of private property beyond the reach of its easement.
“The Court should decline the invitation to read ambiguous power into MVP’s easement documents. MVP must revise its own easement if it needs to restrict the use of private property beyond the pipeline project corridor,” he wrote in an email.
Sherman also voiced concerns about another subpoena, this one issued to Red Terry seeking her social media comments and other information, including a list of visitors to her property.
Terry said Friday that she doesn’t spend much time on Facebook, and that her only goal was to protect the water on rural property that has been in her family for seven generations.
“They [Mountain Valley] want to create the illusion that I’m out here just raising hell,” said Terry, who in 2018 spent more than a month in a tree stand in effort to prevent tree-cutting on her land.
Appalachians Against Pipelines said in a statement that it will continue to share information about grassroots opposition to the 303-mile pipeline on social media.
“This isn’t the first time that MVP has used intimidation tactics to try to stop resistance to the pipeline, and it won’t be the last,” the statement read.
No date has been scheduled for a hearing on Mountain Valley’s request for an injunction that would keep protesters away from its blasting sites. The subpoenas to Facebook demand that the social media giant produce the requested information by Sept. 17.
When someone sets up a page on Facebook, they are given the option of whether or not they want to be publicly identified or not. Appalachians Against Pipelines chose the latter, it said.
Usually when a subpoena is issued, Facebook will inform administrators of its pages, Schwartz said. It is then up to the individuals to challenge the subpoena.
One administrator of the Facebook page had not heard anything from the company by Friday, a spokesperson for the group said. Facebook had not responded by Friday evening to two emails sent by The Roanoke Times.
Appalachians Against Pipelines has been a vocal critic of the pipeline, which has come under fierce fire for its use of eminent domain to take private property, failures to control muddy runoff from construction sites, and contribution to climate change.
But its approach is different from other organizations such as the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights coalition and Wild Virginia, who among others have actively participated in public meetings and filed legal challenges of the permits issued to the pipeline.
The main sign of Appalachians Against Pipelines has been its presence on social media.
Occasionally, it will issue news releases when there is a protest, such as a recent blockade on Poor Mountain by three people who occupied a junked car parked in the pipeline right of way.
The spokesperson for Appalachians Against Pipelines, who asked to remain anonymous, declined to answer questions about the group’s organizational structure, such as whether it has officers or a formal membership list.
But, the statement said, “This campaign, and the dozens of other struggles against pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure across the continent, are stronger than MVP and others want people to believe.”