Doctors ‘shocked’ by lack of access to Virginia pipeline protesters

The protesters have been asked to appear in court Tuesday.

BENT MOUNTAIN, VA -APR 19: Both state and local law enforcement are manning the anti-pipeline protest sites to make sure that no attempts are made to give them food or water. CREDIT: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
BENT MOUNTAIN, VA -APR 19: Both state and local law enforcement are manning the anti-pipeline protest sites to make sure that no attempts are made to give them food or water. CREDIT: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Doctors attempting to provide care to two Virginia women protesting the construction of a pipeline in their backyard say they were denied access to the protestors. The family is scheduled to appear in federal court on Tuesday as part of the ongoing dispute.

Two Charlottesville doctors attempting to visit 61-year-old Theresa “Red” Terry and her daughter, 30-year-old Theresa Minor Terry, on Saturday said they were blocked from giving care by law enforcement. Drs. Paige Perriello and Greg Gelburd visited Bent Mountain in Roanoke County over the weekend in an effort to provide a check-up to the two women.

The Terrys have spent four weeks on small wooden platforms in a tree, part of an effort to stop construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project set to run through the Jefferson National Forest in Giles County, and right through a property that has been in the Terry family for generations. 

The pipeline is intended to span 300 miles from West Virginia into southern Virginia, transporting upwards of 2 billion cubic feet of fracked natural gas on a daily basis through the region. Environmentalists and a number of lawmakers have raised objections over the pipeline, arguing it is unnecessary and infringes upon the rights of local residents. Many say the effort provides no tangible benefits to regional communities, in addition to criticizing what opponents say was an inadequate approval process.


In a series of tweets following the attempted check-up, Perriello said neither she nor Gelburd were allowed through to the Terrys. Instead, the doctors were forced to yell questions through police tape.

“We had high hopes of being able to give her a basic check up and to assess her physical and mental well being. After all, she has been in a confined treehouse for 30 days, some of which has been without food and water from her support team,” Perriello wrote on Twitter, going on to say that law enforcement had proven repeatedly unhelpful during the incident.

“We did the best job we could taking a history from her by shouting across the police tape up to her tree, but sadly we were not allowed to cross over to check her face to face,” the doctor continued.

On Tuesday, Gelburd echoed Perriello’s summary of the attempt to ThinkProgress.

“We really didn’t have any high expectations about getting up the tree … [but] we brought climbing gear just in case,” Gelburd said, recounting the effort.


Once they arrived in the area, the doctors were unable to access the Terrys. “We shouted back and forth to ask how Red was doing, she seemed in good spirits,” said Gelburd, who admitted to being slightly “shocked” that even doctors were not allowed past the police tape. Both doctors called out medical advice to Red, telling her to stand up periodically and expose her legs and body to sunshine. 

Efforts to leave skin cream and other medical treatments with Red’s husband, Coles Terry III, proved fruitless. Gelburd said officials have not allowed Coles to give the items to his wife. When he addressed the issue with Roanoke County spokeswoman Amy Whittaker, Gelburd said Whittaker told him EMTs are on hand to ask the women how they are feeling on a daily basis.

“[I told her] doctors have far more training than EMTs,” Gelburd said. Moreover, he added, the option they are allowing the Terrys is to come down from their respective trees in order to access treatment. But, he asserted, “If they come down … they go to the jail instead.”

Commenting on the news, Cat McCue, communications director for the regionally-based environmental organization Appalachian Voices, told ThinkProgress, “The process for this [the pipeline] on the federal level and state level has been so seriously flawed and turned upside down.”

Appalachian Voices does not take a stance on the activist efforts underway to block the Mountain Valley Pipeline, but McCue said actions like those carried out by the Terrys are “emblematic of how so many people feel” in the region. And while some protesters are concerned with preserving family land, McCue said many opponents are worried more broadly about the threat planned pipelines pose to 1,000 Virginia water crossings. Along with the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is also set to run through parts of the state.

I think the implications [of what the Terrys are doing] are just to show how important this issue is in Virginia,” she said. 


Pipeline opponents have lobbied Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to assert Virginia’s right to protect the state’s waters and draw upon a law he signed earlier this year allowing the Department of Environmental Quality to halt the pipeline if standards are not met. Northam has appeared unwilling to act on the issue, criticizing the Terrys in particular and calling their protest “unlawful” last week.

“Whether you care about climate, clean water or Constitutional abuse of eminent domain for corporate gain, this situation is just plain wrong. If progressives want to show rural communities they care, fighting these pipelines and monopolies would help,” wrote Tom Perriello, former congressman and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, in an email to ThinkProgress on Tuesday. Perriello’s sister Paige is one of the doctors that visited the Terrys on Saturday.

A number of other activists are also occupying trees in a last-ditch effort to block the Mountain Valley Pipeline. At least one other protester has run into difficulties. Attorneys writing on behalf of a woman, self-referenced as “Nutty” on social media, said on April 25 that she was being denied access to food and water by Forest Service officials.

Writing to Roanoke-based Forest Supervisor Joby Timm, Floyd County attorneys Alan Graf and Tammy Belinsky expressed concerns over Nutty’s well-being and warned she could be at risk of “death or significant injury” due to alleged “starvation and isolation tactics”.

Access to sustenance has also been an issue for the Terrys. Roanoke County police have reportedly barred supporters and friends from providing the two women with food and water. Officials have instead provided the Terrys with basic necessities in the time since their own supplies ran out, but family members and supporters worry that may not be enough, something that prompted Gelburd and Perriello’s visit.

Whittaker, the Roanoke County spokeswoman, has said that the Terrys are in violation of a court order and that they are “evading arrest” in continuing their protest. A federal court hearing for the Terrys is scheduled for Tuesday, but it is unclear whether the protesters will appear in court, as doing so would require them to come down from the trees.

Gelburd expressed his concerns with how the Terrys are being treated by officials. “She kept calling them criminals, saying I couldn’t cross because it was a crime scene,” he said, referencing Whittaker.

The doctor noted that the visit was partly political in nature. As someone with a background in occupational health, Gelburd says he is familiar with how easy it is to contaminate groundwater — something he worries the planned pipeline will do, endangering the health of residents in the process. He also questioned whether the pipeline is necessary.

“I feel they could have put the money into renewable energy sources instead,” he said.

Of the Terrys’ ongoing efforts, Gelburd added that, as an eighth generation Virginian, he empathizes with their commitment to fighting back against the forces overseeing the pipeline’s construction. People in the area, he said, are “hard workers, good souls” and “stubborn” in the face of corporations.

While Gelburd said he did not expect to grab the attention of Gov. Northam, he emphasized that his efforts to treat the Terrys were also a pointed message to the government.

“Our attempt to do something is really pointed towards the governor, to put on his stethoscope to go down there,” he said. “And if he won’t, to at least [ensure] that these so-called ‘criminals’ are being treated fairly.”