The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Perched on a platform high in a tree, a 61-year-old woman fights a gas pipeline

A mother and daughter sit in trees to block the Mountain Valley Pipeline from coming through their property. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)
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ROANOKE COUNTY, Va. — When the trees started coming down, Theresa “Red” Terry went up.

Now, the 61-year-old mother of three is perched on a platform 32 feet in the air between two oak trees, trying to stop a natural gas pipeline from coming through land granted to her husband’s family by the king of England in Colonial times.

For three weeks, she has endured rain, snow, hail, nighttime temperatures in the 20s and high winds. Her body is stiff and sore. When she huddles under a tarp to stay warm, it’s usually too dark to read. She’s bored.

Ten days ago, police said family and friends could no longer bring her food and water.

Officers are waiting at the base of the trees, around the clock, to arrest her when she finally comes down. Her 30-year-old daughter is in another tree, too far through the family’s woods to see, also defying police.

They’re trespassing on their own property.

As the stalemate drags on, “I stand with Red” has become a rallying cry for opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile, $3.5 billion project being built by a coalition of companies led by EQT Midstream Partners.

It’s the further along of two gas pipelines planned in Virginia. An even bigger project, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, is being built through the central part of the state by a coalition led by Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility. The two pipelines have thrown together environmentalists; although property rights advocates have tried to block them, the projects have won political and regulatory support at every turn.

Virginia water board approves Mountain Valley Pipeline, angering opponents

With tree-clearing finally underway, an air of desperation is gripping opponents. A handful of other tree-sitters have blocked part of the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s route in the Jefferson National Forest in West Virginia since February. A few more sitters went up trees in Virginia’s Franklin County last week.

Last Wednesday, a group of Democratic state lawmakers from Northern Virginia and Richmond joined with others from the southwestern part of the state to call on Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to slow both projects, a sign that the issue is expanding beyond a regional concern. Though Northam’s office said there is nothing the governor can do, because the project has won federal approval, the State Water Control Board has approved a new 30-day comment period for the public to weigh in on whether waterway protections are adequate.

That has given Terry and her army of supporters some hope.

Sticking her head out from a plastic tarp one frigid morning last week, she vowed to carry on for “as long as I can.” Down below, several uniformed Roanoke County police officers, two state troopers in full camouflage gear and a pipeline security official listened from a blue tent.

On Friday, pressure on her family grew. The pipeline company asked a federal judge to declare the Terrys in civil contempt, fine them for every day of violation, direct U.S. marshals to remove the tree-sitters and charge them for damages from the delay.

Coles Terry III — husband of one tree-sitter, father of the other — said he knew it would eventually come to that. “I’m here to support my wife and daughter in the trees, and that means doing anything I can,” he said. “If that means sending me to jail, then okay.”

A beginning by mail

The Terrys first heard of the Mountain Valley Pipeline when they got a notice in the mail a little less than four years ago. It seemed hard to imagine that something would intrude on their wooded enclave on Bent Mountain, southwest of Roanoke.

Coles Terry III, his brother, a sister and other family members own about 1,500 acres near the Blue Ridge Parkway — crisscrossed with streams, full of old hay fields surrounded by deep woods and narrow dirt lanes winding up rocky slopes.

As the pipeline project simmered along, the Terrys and their neighbors spent increasing amounts of time and resources fighting it. They attended public hearings, peppered the landscape with hand-painted anti-pipeline signs, attended rallies and supported anti-pipeline officials running for elections.

‘Campaign to elect a pipeline:’ Va.’s most powerful company ran multi-front fight

To them, the pipeline seems like a violation because it doesn’t appear to yield local benefits. When the county first brought in electricity, Coles Terry III said, the family was happy to give up land for power lines to help their whole community. The gas that will flow under their property originates in West Virginia and will pass almost to the North Carolina line.

Invoking eminent domain, the pipeline builders offered to compensate the Terrys for using a stretch of their land. The family rejected the money and instead filed suit to stop the project. A federal judge ruled against them early last month.

That’s when Red, as everyone knows her, took note of the tree-sitters blocking the pipeline route in West Virginia and decided she would do the same.

Her 61-year-old husband, a construction superintendent, worked with his son and other activists to build the stands and get them up into trees smack in the middle of the staked-off pipeline right of way.

After Red and Theresa Minor Terry took their positions, they were spotted by workers who came to clear trees. Day after day, the women could hear the chain saws getting closer.

Red’s daughter, who goes by Minor, has lived on the mountain almost all her life, except during college. She keeps the books for a real estate company, which has given her time off in support of the protest.

The week before last, the tree-clearing got within sight of her perch.

“She was torn up. And I was sitting over here and every time one of these [trees] hit the ground it was like driving a nail in my head,” her father said. That same day, police came to read her an official notice to get out of the tree.

“I was so proud of her,” he said. “When they read the notice the second time and they asked her, ‘Do you need help getting down?’ She threw that tarp back and it’s like, ‘I don’t need help getting down cuz I don’t intend to come down.’ And flipped the tarp back over top of her.”

It wasn’t until Thursday that police filed formal charges: trespassing, obstruction of justice and interfering with property rights.

A rallying community

With community sympathy running high for the Terrys — neighbors help sit watch all day and night; local restaurants supply food and host fundraisers — Roanoke County police say they’re handling the matter as carefully as they can.

“We acknowledge that this is a very difficult situation for everyone involved,” public information officer Amy Whittaker said via email. “But the fact remains that this has played out in the court systems, and consistently rulings have been in favor of MVP. It is not the job of the Police Department to contest decisions made at the state and federal levels.”

Emergency medical technicians stop by every afternoon to check on the women, who joke and chat with them and with the police. They haven’t denied the women food and water, Whittaker said; it’s available at the base of the trees if they want to come down and get it.

If they come down, though, they’ll be arrested.

Pipeline officials are frustrated by the stalemate. They say that 86 percent of landowners in the route of the pipeline have accepted settlements to permit construction. The pipelines won erosion and sediment permits from the state in December, clearing the way for construction to begin.

The project has gone through extraordinary review. State officials agree that both gas pipelines have been subjected to the most detailed study they’ve ever seen.

But opponents are outraged that detailed review of stream-by-stream crossings was left to federal officials, despite a promise last year from Northam — when he was running for office — that the state would conduct its own review.

On Wednesday, more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers held a news conference highlighting Red Terry’s protest and calling on the governor to do more.

‘They would work their hearts out for him’ if only Northam opposed pipelines

“We’re asking — urging — demanding that our good friend Ralph Northam . . . work with us to find common ground,” said Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax), who was joined by other delegates from Prince William, Fairfax, Alexandria and Richmond to show solidarity with southwest colleagues.

“We stand together, and we stand with Red,” said Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William).

The push got the attention of the pipeline companies. That same morning, Dominion Energy put out a statement warning that attempts to delay the pipelines “will cost consumers and businesses hundreds of millions of dollars in higher energy costs.”

On Friday, Northam commented on the pipeline standoff via email, reiterating that he has instructed state officials to conduct rigorous oversight.

“I recognize that there are many Virginians who would like to see this administration take whatever action we can to undermine or obstruct these projects,” Northam said. “I am also quite certain that the owners of these projects would love for the state to conduct less stringent oversight and accountability of these projects in order to get them completed faster.”

The only fair course is to let state and federal regulators do their jobs, he said, adding: “I am deeply sympathetic to the Virginians who are speaking out about these projects. I hope that, as we move forward, we can continue to engage in this discussion civilly and with the understanding that we all want what is best for this Commonwealth we love.”

A water concern

The protesters are trying to draw attention not only to the trees that are being cleared but also to the water so evident around the pipeline route. In at least one spot on the Terrys’ land, a spring bubbles up from under a pile of cut trees and trickles off toward a rushing creek. The stakes marking the pipeline path run alongside the creek — at one point partway down a steep bank over the water — and through wetland areas filled with dark green skunk cabbage.

Water from Bent Mountain flows into the Roanoke River, which provides drinking water to the whole region and, along with tributaries, will be crossed by the pipeline hundreds of times. Opponents fear an environmental disaster.

Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) has asked the state to suspend permits for soil-clearing to give more time to study water impact. He brought his children out to see Red and Minor Terry last week; on Thursday, a nearby Montessori class came out to see civil disobedience in action.

But state Sen. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson County) said he thinks the show has gone on long enough. He has seen protests over pipelines before in his mountainous part of the state, he said. “Once it was in the ground and everything’s done, it’s out of sight, out of mind. No one says anything about it,” he said.

If you want to replace coal with cleaner energy, he said, natural gas is part of the solution. And as a former state trooper, he thinks police have been more than patient with the tree-sitters. “If I had a warrant, I probably would’ve been climbing the tree. That’s just the way it was in my day,” he said.

As it is, police and protesters sit across from one another in the woods in uneasy balance. Activists supporting Red and Minor Terry occupy tents and lean-to’s just outside yellow crime tape wound around the trees by the police.

Keeping warm over campfires, they wait, sometimes with coffee, sometimes beer. Every now and then, a musician comes out and the police will emerge and listen. On Thursday, a sergeant brought Chick-fil-A to the officers. At night, police shine lights on the base of the trees to make sure no one sneaks up or down.

When visitors watch or photograph pipeline work sites, the workers often stop and take photos of the visitors. If visitors step inside the pipeline work zone, it’s trespassing; if workers step outside, it’s also trespassing.

Tensions have flared. Minor Terry dropped her solar charger the other day and police refused to let her father give it back to her. Now, she’s without light or cellphone.

And Red Terry had a bad day not long ago when she discovered that of all the supplies she and her husband had stockpiled on her platform, there was one crucial thing they forgot: cigarettes.

A heavy smoker, she called down to police that she needed BC Powder for pain and cigarettes to keep her calm. The police sent up a few aspirins, but said she’d have to come down to get smokes.

So she dumped out her waste bucket. Luckily, police weren’t hit, because that could’ve meant an assault charge. But they expanded the crime tape to keep supporters farther away.

“I guess if I ever get too weak to give ’em a hard time they’d probably have to come get me,” she said last week.

Her husband toggles between pride and fear.

“I can’t say I married a level-headed, calm woman,” he said. But it’s no wonder, he added, that his wife and daughter are the ones up those trees, drawing a network of local support that’s also largely female. “They’re protecting their families. They’re women — mothers, daughters, sisters — and they’re protecting what they hold dear. Try to pull a cub away from a mother bear and you’ll understand what I’m saying.”

As the days wear on and pressure mounts, though, any resolution has an element of danger. Both Red and Minor Terry have vowed to resist if anyone tries to force them down. With Friday’s court filing, federal marshals could be on the way soon to do what local police have so far resisted.

How will it end?

“Probably poorly for me and many of my neighbors,” Red Terry said from high on her perch. But the community won’t give up, she said. “They might’ve broken their hearts but they sure as hell didn’t break their spirits. . . . I’m hoping maybe we can change a few things.”