Anti-pipeline activists in Virginia face fines for protesting on their own land

Protestors have also been denied medical care and at least one may not have access to food and water.

Theresa Ellen Terry aka Red protests the Mountain Valley Pipeline Project near Roanoke, Virginia. CREDIT: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Theresa Ellen Terry aka Red protests the Mountain Valley Pipeline Project near Roanoke, Virginia. CREDIT: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Activists in Virginia are facing fines for protesting the construction of a major pipeline project on their own land. The development is the latest in a series of setbacks for pipeline opponents attempting to halt two major projects in the region, but activists say the fight is far from over.

During a rally in Charlottesville on Monday, two activists called for public action against the Mountain Valley and the Atlantic Coast pipelines, the Daily Progress reported. Theresa “Red” Terry, 61, and her daughter, 30-year-old Theresa Minor Terry, ended their five week protest against the Mountain Valley Pipeline on Saturday. For weeks, both women had previously refused to leave two trees blocking the project’s building efforts.

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U.S. District Judge Elizabeth K. Dillon ruled that the Terrys would face daily fines of $1,000 if they did not come down by Saturday. Dillon also fined Red’s husband, Coles Terry III, $2,000 for his role in assisting his family. The judge said the fines would be paid to the company constructing the Mountain Valley pipeline, a decision the mother-daughter duo said sparked their choice to come down from the trees so as to continue their protest on the ground.

“This is our land, we need to protect it and our representatives need to step up to the plate and quit letting the gas and oil companies run the United States,” said Red Terry, addressing supporters in Charlottesville. “It’s supposed to be for the people by the people, not for the profit.”

The Mountain Valley pipeline is set to run 303 miles, transporting around 2 billion cubic feet of fracked natural gas a day through West Virginia into Virginia. A 70-mile expansion into North Carolina has also been proposed as part of the project. Local residents and environmentalists have lobbied against the pipeline, arguing it is a costly and risky endeavor, one they say has yet to undergo a thorough approval process.

The pipeline will run through Jefferson National Forest in Giles County, crossing a property the Terry family has owned for generations. Beginning April 2, the Terrys weathered the elements for over a month on monopods perched in two neighboring trees on the family’s property on Bent Mountain near Roanoke in an effort to stop construction.

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As their supplies dwindled, supporters attempted to bring the Terrys food, only to be stopped by Roanoke County police. Law enforcement eventually provided the women with food, but later blocked two Virginia doctors, Paige Perriello and Greg Gelburd, from providing the Terrys with medical care. Both doctors attempted to provide the women with a check-up on April 28, but Forest Service officials denied them access.

Gelburd later told ThinkProgress he and Perriello shouted medical advice to the Terrys over police tape and that he was “shocked” by the lack of access. He said he unsuccessfully attempted to leave skin cream and other treatments with Coles Terry, but that officials did not allow him to provide his wife and daughter with the items.

On the same day the Terrys came down from their perches, another effort was underway to provide medical care to pipeline opponents elsewhere in the area.

A woman self-referenced on social media as “Nutty” has been perched atop a 50-foot platform in the Jefferson National Forest since March 28. Forest Service officials have reportedly implemented 24-hour surveillance around her monopod in an effort to convince her to abandon her protest and at least two activists have been arrested while trying to bring her food. It is not clear whether Nutty and other protestors are facing fines like the Terrys.

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In a letter sent April 25, two Floyd County attorneys wrote to Roanoke-based Forest Supervisor Joby Timm that Nutty was being denied food and water, endangering her life. Alan Graf and Tammy Belinsky do not appear to represent Nutty but both attorneys are involved in ongoing anti-pipeline efforts.

Gelburd and Perriello attempted to visit Nutty on Saturday to provide medical care, but met with resistance similar to their last effort. Perriello described Nutty’s situation as “dire” to ThinkProgress and repeated that she has been cut off from food and water.

“Thankfully there has been rain several times in the last few days, so I think her water has been [replenished] — but I know she is hungry and I’m not sure how much food she has left,” Perriello said.

Both doctors attempted to use a megaphone to communicate with Nutty but were soon interrupted by approaching Forest Service officials. Initially, Perriello said, she and Gelburd hoped they might be able to speak with the officials about examining Nutty directly, but instead found the officials appeared to be intentionally moving a loud generator close to them.

“It was shocking when we figured out they were moving the generator to the base of the monopod making it almost impossible for us to hear each other,” Perriello said. “I can’t think of any other explanation for this behavior other than to disrupt our conversation.”

According to Perriello, an EMT onsite told her that every day they provide medical assistance to Nutty consisting of asking two questions — whether she needs to go to the hospital and whether they can help her get down. Officials indicated they were not willing to speak with the doctors and Perriello said the physicians were unable to complete the check-up even via megaphone.

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In a statement to ThinkProgress, the group Appalachians Against Pipelines criticized Forest Service efforts to hinder the doctors’ access to the protestors.

“Clearly the Forest Service is not actually concerned with public health and wellness, as they have spent over a month enforcing their closure and protecting this pipeline,” the organization said.

The group also expressed disappointment in the pressure placed on the Terrys to abandon their protest.

“We commend the Terrys for their resistance, and share in their indignation at a ruling that places blame on a family sticking up for itself, not on a corporate land grab backed up by armed state and federal cops,” the statement read. “We hope that despite this development, folks along the route will continue to be inspired to put themselves directly in the way of the projects that threaten them.”

Many pipeline opponents have called on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to draw upon the state’s right to protect its waters. They are asking for a Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) study analyzing the impact the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines will have on the state. Northam had previously made a campaign promise pledging to ensure pipeline safety.

In a statement made after the Terrys came down on Saturday, Northam indicated he still does not think such a DEQ study is necessary.

“These projects are subject to the most environmentally protective process in Virginia history and the Department of Environmental Quality is reviewing proposed land disturbance and construction activities along every foot of the pipeline routes, including each proposed wetland and stream crossing,” the governor wrote.

The Terrys indicated they plan to continue pushing for the study regardless. Both mother and daughter have said the intend to attend a Dominion Energy shareholder meeting this week. Dominion Energy is behind the Atlantic Coast pipeline and Minor Terry told the Washington Post the family wants to draw attention to that effort, which has received less media attention.

In Charlottesville, Red Terry emphasized that she and other activists will continue to pressure Northam.

“I told him that I had to grow a set, and it’s damn time he did, too,” Terry said. “I really think the governor should stop bending over for Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast and stand with the people.”

That fight has already come to Washington. Virginia State Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) filed a lawsuit on May 2 against the Forest Service and in support of the protestors. Peterson’s suit argues that federal officials are blocking road access in an effort to keep supporters from aiding the protestors. The case has been taken under advisement and a ruling could come at any time.

Appalachians Against Pipelines said that harsh efforts targeting the protestors were regrettable, but expressed optimism about longer term activist efforts.

“We hope folks following this story aren’t intimidated by these responses by [Mountain Valley Pipeline] and the cops,” the organization said, adding, “we take them as signs that our action is worthwhile!”