The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. governor says tree sitters’ pipeline protest is ‘unlawful,’ cites health concern

Theresa “Red” Terry has been occupying a tree on her land outside of Roanoke, Va.,  since April 2. The tree is in the path of a planned gas pipeline. Her daughter is protesting in a  tree nearby.
Theresa “Red” Terry has been occupying a tree on her land outside of Roanoke, Va., since April 2. The tree is in the path of a planned gas pipeline. Her daughter is protesting in a tree nearby. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday that it’s “unlawful” for a mother and daughter to sit in trees and block a natural gas pipeline across their property outside Roanoke, and that he’s particularly worried about the older woman’s health.

But Northam (D) stopped short of saying he would order state police to do anything to resolve the standoff.

Theresa “Red” Terry, 61, and daughter Theresa Minor Terry, 30, have been on wooden platforms in trees on Bent Mountain since April 2, preventing workers for the Mountain Valley Pipeline from clearing trees on a path through their land.

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

Roanoke County police have prohibited supporters from delivering food and water to the women for nearly two weeks. On Sunday, the day a story about the women’s crusade ran in The Washington Post, officials gave the women pizza and bologna sandwiches. They have not, however, fulfilled Red Terry’s request for cigarettes.

Northam had not previously criticized the women for their stand but on Wednesday called it “unfortunate.”

“I want them to be safe, and so we want to make sure that they have food and water,” he said in a Facebook Live interview at the WTOP-FM radio station. “The one that’s up in one of the trees referred to as ‘Red’ has been asking for cigarettes. I worry about her health. She’s 61 years old; she’s up in the . . . weather; she’s smoking cigarettes,” said Northam, a pediatric neurologist.

“You know, the First Amendment is important, but also the safety of individuals in Virginia is important, so we hope that there’s going to be a resolution to this in the near future,” he said.

A spokesman said later that Northam is not ordering any action on the part of state police, who are supporting local police round the clock at the base of the trees.

Virginia water board approves Mountain Valley Pipeline, angering opponents

Roanoke County police said they will continue to keep supporters away for safety reasons, with the platforms hanging more than 30 feet above. They said Sunday was the first time the women had complained of being out of basic necessities.

“Roanoke County will provide protesters with what is needed to ensure their physical needs are met,” public information officer Amy Whittaker said in a prepared statement. The women are now being given three bags of food per day — generally sandwiches and fruit.

Tree sitters are also protesting the pipeline in at least two other locations, though one came down from a tree in the Jefferson National Forest earlier this week.

EQT Midstream Partners, the lead company on the 300-mile pipeline, last Friday asked a federal judge to levy penalties against the Terry family for every day of delayed work.

Coles Terry III, whose wife and daughter are on those platforms, said Wednesday that he expects a hearing on the motions next week. In the meantime, he said, the women remain in high spirits.

He had not heard the governor’s comments. “For Gov. Northam to be worried about a 61-year-old woman asking for cigarettes — I’m glad he’s concerned about that, but he should be concerned . . . that state and federal [environmental] agencies are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Terry said.

Anyway, he said, his wife is going to use this as a chance to quit smoking.