Mountain Valley Pipeline Protested With Tree Sitter

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Above Photo: Emily Satterwhite (foreground) and Tina Badger talk to tree-sitter Lauren Bowman, 24, of Blacksburg in her stand in Montgomery County in September. 

Two people face removal from trees because they are blocking the Mountain Valley Pipeline project near Elliston, a pipeline attorney said in court papers.

A person who said he is one of the protesters expressed defiance Thursday.

The person, who identified himself as 24-year-old Phillip Flagg, said only “if the pipeline were stopped” would he leave the tree voluntarily.

He said he was speaking from about 50 feet above the ground in a chestnut oak near Yellow Finch Lane. He said he has ample supplies to stay alive, and another tree-sitter is nearby. The location is a steep slope below Poor Mountain in eastern Montgomery County, he said.

Even though the project has been slowed by legal and regulatory impediments related to alleged environmental violations, Mountain Valley recently said in court papers that the company “intends to seek removal of these individuals,” calling them Tree-Sitter 1 and Tree-Sitter 2. It’s not clear from the filings whether Mountain Valley knows their names.

While they don’t own any of the land involved, the tree-sitters can be sued as “persons claiming an interest in the property,” the company’s Dec. 20 filing said. “The tree sitters are occupying the property with the express purpose and intent of preventing MVP from exercising its rights under the Court’s order.”

The Roanoke federal court gave Mountain Valley an easement to access the privately owned land where it intends to bury the pipe and where, according to an Appalachians Against Pipelines Facebook post, the Montgomery County tree-sitters have occupied an oak and a pine for 112 days as of Christmas.

Landowner Cletus Bohon, who opposes the pipeline’s use of his property, said Thursday the tree-sitters did not seek his permission before entering his land three months ago.

He did not grant permission, nor has he asked them to leave, Bohon said, adding that he is letting his attorney take the lead.

Flagg said he opposes the pipeline because natural gas contributes to climate change, which is a major threat, especially to young people. “The U.N. report that came out this year said we have 12 years to act decisively, and this is clearly moving in the wrong direction,” he said. Having lost hope that politicians and courts would stop the pipeline, he said he took direct action. He said he has no fixed address but was born in Texas.

Pressed about whether he would leave the tree on his own, Flagg said it would take a change in the course of events with finality: “If the pipeline is not going to be finished, if the company goes out of business or they issue a statement saying it’s not going to be finished, [or] they are abandoning the project,” he said.

His is the latest tree-sitting protest intended to impede construction of the 300-mile natural gas pipeline. About a dozen similar aerial blockades have been staged in Giles, Franklin, Montgomery and Roanoke counties and in Monroe County, West Virginia, since February. All of those protesters came down voluntarily or were removed by police.

Mountain Valley broke ground in early 2018 but ran into difficulty with erosion and sediment control. It can’t lay pipe through streams or wetlands in Virginia and West Virginia due to the cancellation or suspension of all water-crossing permits.

The Virginia Water Control Board has voted to reconvene at a future date to reconsider its earlier approval of the project. Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality accused the company in a lawsuit of repeated environmental violations and requested the maximum penalties.

Also on the legal front, opponents have asked a federal appeals court to protect 300 privately owned parcels in Virginia from further construction activity unless eminent domain issues are settled. Another legal team has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider letting the pipeline company use eminent domain at all.