Judge sides with anti-pipeline protesters in Appalachia

Pipeline opponents have warred against two ongoing projects for months.

CREDIT: Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post via Getty Images
CREDIT: Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Production on a controversial pipeline cutting across parts of the South and Appalachia is in flux following a court ruling on Friday. Advocates hailed the decision but cautioned that pipeline construction is still underway, with activists still working to prevent the controversial project.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed a win to conservation groups on July 27, declaring that the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had erred in granting approval to pipeline developers for part of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). The 3.6 mile segment in question cuts through the Jefferson National Forest and would run under the Appalachian Trail.

“MVP’s proposed project would be the largest pipeline of its kind to cross the Jefferson National Forest,” Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote. “American citizens understandably place their trust in the Forest Service to protect and preserve this country’s forests, and they deserve more than silent acquiescence to a pipeline company’s justification for upending large swaths of national forest lands.”

Thacker rescinded permissions for pipeline-related activities within the publicly-owned forest and sent the issue back to both the Forest Service and BLM for further inspection. The suit was brought by a coalition of organizations, including the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, Wild Virginia, the Wilderness Society, Preserve Craig, and Save Monroe.

Activists greeted the ruling with applause. “This is a major victory for Virginia families and for all Americans,” said Appalachian Voices’ Virginia Program Manager Peter Anderson in a statement.


Nathan Matthews, a staff attorney for the Sierra Club, said that the decision was “great news for Virginians” and a win for clean water and forest advocates.

“We have said all along that we can’t trust Mountain Valley Pipeline to protect Virginia’s water, so it’s refreshing to see the court refuse to take them at their word,” said Matthews. “We aren’t buying the gas industry’s claims about their water protection methods and now, the courts aren’t either.”

Other activists were less optimistic. In a statement to ThinkProgress Monday morning, the group Appalachians Against Pipelines cautioned against reporting that construction on the pipeline had halted and emphasized that no stop work order has been issued as of present.

“Although the court decision is certainly a positive development, the pipeline continues to destroy land, water, and communities in the region,” the organization said. “If we want to actually stop this pipeline, we must take bold action against it.”

A spokesperson for the MVP downplayed the court decision but did not indicate what impact the ruling will have on the broader project. 


“MVP is working with the agencies to evaluate the effect of the order on construction activities in the National Forest, which amounts to about 1 percent of the overall project route,” read a statement from the corporation.

The MVP has generated controversy across the region, worrying environmentalists and residents alike. The pipeline is set to run 303 miles through West Virginia into Virginia, with the possibility of extending to North Carolina. Approximately 2 billion cubic feet of fracked natural gas are expected to pass daily through the pipeline.

Both the MVP and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) are expected to come into contact with around 1,000 water crossings in Virginia, according to a February report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies. Pipeline supporters have emphasized that the projects could bring jobs, but opponents argue the threat to public health and the environment isn’t worth the risk.

A number of opponents have staged tree sit-ins in an effort to halt the MVP, including a mother-daughter pair battling against the pipeline’s construction on their family land.

Theresa “Red” Terry, 61, and Theresa Minor Terry, 30, spent five weeks on neighboring tree platforms in an effort to protect their land in Giles County. Doctors attempting to visit the women were denied access by law enforcement agents and the duo ultimately came down in response to fines imposed by a district judge.

Another protester self-referenced as “Nutty” ultimately abandoned her own protest in May after running out of food. The U.S. Forest Service had prevented activists from attempting to supply her with sustenance and similarly denied doctors access to the protester when they attempted to visit her.

Appalachians Against Pipelines hailed the protesters and credited them with much of the success opponents have seen in their efforts to halt the pipelines.


“We are grateful to the many tree sitters and blockaders who have put their bodies in the path of pipeline construction over the past few months,” the group said. “Their brave actions have protected as much of the forest as possible while the courts have taken months to cancel permits that should never have been issued in the first place.”

While the MVP struggles in court, the ACP is moving ahead. A media relations manager for Dominion Energy, the backer for that pipeline, said on Friday that construction would likely begin in September for the ACP’s Robeson County section in North Carolina. The pipeline is expected to run 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina, passing through Virginia along the way.