A Virginia state senator filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday, claiming that federal officials are illegally blocking access to a road in the Jefferson National Forest where several people are protesting construction of a natural gas pipeline.
State Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), who is a lawyer, filed the suit at the federal courthouse in Roanoke after being prohibited from using the road to reach the protesters last week.
His action opens another legal front in the fight over the right to protest the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile project that starts in West Virginia and crosses through Virginia’s southwest mountains.
A separate set of tree sitters was in federal court in Roanoke on Tuesday, as EQT Midstream and other companies behind the pipeline argued that Theresa “Red” Terry, her daughter Theresa Minor Terry and other members of the family are illegally blocking a stretch of the planned pipeline through their land. The builders of the pipeline want a judge to hold the Terry family and their allies in contempt.
Petersen’s suit is aimed at a site on Peters Mountain in Giles County along the West Virginia line. There, a protester identified only as “Nutty” has been living suspended from a pole, or monopod, since March 27, blocking efforts to clear trees.
On April 7, the Forest Service closed a gravel access road to the public but continued to allow Mountain Valley Pipeline trucks to use it, saying it was unsafe for outsiders to be around the construction zone.
But Petersen said Wednesday that he didn’t believe that explanation. His suit argues that the purpose of the closure is to “prevent persons to reach ‘Nutty’ or bring her provisions, as she is running short of food.”
Because the road is on public land, closing it “is a violation of the First Amendment,” Petersen said. “People have a right to be there. This is a political act that’s taking place; it’s political expression.”
He filed the suit on behalf of three local residents who use the road. Petersen said there is no effort to seek money, only the opening of the road. And he said the suit is not specifically about getting supplies to the protester — although, he added, “if we get up in front of a judge I’m happy to go there.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service said the agency would not comment on pending legal actions.
In the other court matter, lawyers for the Terry family argued Tuesday that the pipeline company should be held in contempt because it is continuing to cut trees past a March 31 deadline.
The pipeline had until that date to finish cutting trees in sensitive bat habitats. The company argues that it was only certain trees that could not be cut past that date, not all trees.
Its lawyers want the judge to order federal marshals to forcibly remove “Red” Terry and her daughter from the trees they’re occupying on family property on Bent Mountain, south of Roanoke.
The judge took the case under advisement and could rule soon.