Meet the Activists Arrested for Opposing the Mountain Valley Pipeline

On April 11, high school English teacher Stephanie Stallings stood her ground with a group of protesters in opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline on the property of Mary Beth Coffey in Bent Mountain, Virginia. Under eminent domain, the pipeline is being constructed through Coffey’s property and that of several other landowners who oppose its construction.

Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC was conducting tree-cutting on the property at the time to clear a path for construction. According to Stallings, Roanoke County Police told protesters at the scene to move two tree-lengths away from a designated tree-cutting area, citing standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Stallings, one of the first Mountain Valley protesters to be arrested, refused to move.

“I felt this tiredness of being pushed around by these people who are breaking the laws consistently … that are in place to protect us, the land and the water,” Stallings told Truthout. “I didn’t want them to continue cutting the trees.”

She was arrested and charged on April 11 with interfering with property rights and transported 45-minutes away to the Roanoke County Jail. On June 6, the county prosecutor asked for a continuance to gather evidence, which would further delay the trial. The request was denied by Roanoke County Judge Jacqueline Talevi, and the charge against Stallings was dropped. Despite the judge’s decision, Virginia Commonwealth Prosecutor Randy Leach expressed his intent to continue pursuing the charge against her.

Another early arrest in the Mountain Valley Pipeline fight, that of Rafael Snell-Feikema, was recently thrown out in court after his defense attorneys argued that police lied about Feikema’s actions to warrant the arrest. In March, Feikema was charged with interfering with the use of a road, trail or gate, facing up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. Assistant US Attorney Stephen Pfleger, along with Feikema’s defense attorney, filed a motion to dismiss the charges, but no explanation was provided as to why the case was dropped.

Arrests of Mountain Valley Pipeline protesters have been a regular occurrence along the construction route of the pipeline since March 2018. Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC has cleared forest and begun construction of the $3.5 billion, 303-mile pipeline from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia, with a proposed 70-mile extension into North Carolina. The project is funded and operated by Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC and owned by EQT Midstream Partners, LP; NextEra US Gas Assets, LLC; Con Edison Transmission, Inc.; WGL Midstream; and RGC Midstream, LLC.

The natural gas pipeline will transport up to 2 billion cubic feet of fracked natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica Shale basins daily, according to EQT Midstream Partners spokesperson Natalie Cox.

Cox would not comment on the arrests, referring Truthout to law enforcement agencies in an email. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on June 1 that Virginia’s anti-terrorism unit, the Virginia Fusion Center, is being used to monitor opponents to the pipeline. The center is coordinating information with local law enforcement and EQT Midstream Partners about many of the activists involved in tree-sits to try to halt or slow down tree-cutting for the pipeline construction.

According to the Roanoke Times, at least 20 people have been arrested in opposing the pipeline, though none of the charges have yet been successfully prosecuted. Public Information Officer for Roanoke County Amy Whittaker told Truthout in an email that six people have been charged within the county in regards to the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

“Obviously, they didn’t want me up there and I was arrested when I came down,” said Deckard, who only provided his first name because he fears further legal action against him. He occupied one of the last two tree platforms at Peters Mountain in Jefferson National Forest along West Virginia’s border. Deckard came down from the tree on June 1 and was charged with two misdemeanors: violating a national forest service closure order, effectively trespassing, and maintaining an illegal structure in a national forest.

“Like everyone else, I was a witness to the cruel injustices happening and I felt like I had to do something,” Deckard told Truthout. “I slowly got involved and eventually found myself in the tree, and am happy to be a part of this large resistance against the Mountain Valley Pipeline, [and] all pipelines and the struggles that exist to stop them.” His trial is scheduled to begin on August 8.

Another tree-sitter on Peters Mountain, Catherine “Fern” McDougal, was forcibly removed from her tree on June 1 by police. “It was more of a direct intervention than a protest. Direct action actually accomplishes something or stops something you would want to protest,” McDougal told Truthout.

She spent more than 10 days on a plywood platform in the tree that served as a blockade. “They had to bring in a rope expert and re-anchor the lines on the ground, and they moved a cherry picker around to extract me,” she said. McDougal was charged with four misdemeanor offenses: resisting arrest, blocking a forest service road, entering a forest service closure and maintaining an illegal structure in a national forest. She is due in court on July 26.

Several of the arrested pipeline opponents are landowners who have had trees cut on their property for pipeline construction after the government seized their land under eminent domain. Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC sued to invoke eminent domain for the proposed path of the pipeline, and a judge ruled in the company’s favor earlier this year to proceed with construction on the private property of nearly 300 landowners.

“When the pipeline feels their work is being impeded, they call the police. That’s what happened when Mary Beth Coffey and I were arrested on May 25,” said 70-year-old Jenny Chapman, who has lived on Bent Mountain in Virginia for 43 years. “We were, with full permission of our neighbors and friends, there to monitor the tree-cutting because we weren’t sure the trees were going to be cut in the right place. This property has a Native American burial mound on it, so we were there observing and hoping they wouldn’t cut into the burial mound. The police said we were too close to the work space, so we were charged.”

Rather than take the two grandmothers into the local magistrate to be booked in handcuffs, the officers on the scene gave them a citation to appear in court to face the charges. Coffey and Chapman’s trial is scheduled to begin on August 20.

Will Adams and Polly Branch were the first locals to be arrested in Franklin County, Virginia, just one day after Judge Elizabeth Dillon directed US Marshals to enforce a court order to prohibit any interference with tree-cutting.

“We were not planning on getting arrested or being contemptuous,” Adams told Truthout. They arrived at Four Corners Farm in Franklin County at 8:30 am on May 31 to monitor the tree-cutting. Currently residing in Montana, Adams grew up in the area and helped organize a festival to stop the pipeline last year in Roanoke, Virginia.

“As we were walking away, and [were] more than 100-feet away from the tree-cutting, they ran up the hill and arrested us,” Adams said. He and Branch were charged with failure to comply with an officer’s order. “There were no witnesses and we didn’t have any video. I think they took advantage of that fact.” Adams noted he was shackled at the feet and wrists, and claimed he was bound so tight that he couldn’t walk and it dug into his heel, causing it to bleed. Adams and Branch’s court date is scheduled for July 3.

On June 4, three protesters from Massachusetts took up a new form of civil disobedience to oppose the pipeline, chaining themselves to construction equipment in Monroe County, West Virginia.

“We’ve been struck by the sharp contrast between the region’s plush natural beauty and the ongoing grotesque destruction it faces,” the three protesters said in a statement. “We saw a chance to shut down work at the bore site on Route 219 and took it.”

The Mountain Valley Pipeline continues to cut trees along the pipeline route, with the most recent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission extension providing the company until July 31 to finish tree-cutting in Jefferson National Forest.