A 61-year-old mother of three and her daughter are perched on platforms high in the air, trying to stop a natural-gas pipeline from coming through their family’s land in Virginia.
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.
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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 farther 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, and although property-rights advocates have tried to block the plans, the projects have won political and regulatory support at every turn.
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 Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam 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 OK.”
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, the Terrys and their neighbors attended public hearings, peppered the landscape with hand-painted anti-pipeline signs, attended rallies and supported anti-pipeline officials running for elections.
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. 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 most of 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.
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.”
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.
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 skunk cabbage.
Water from Bent Mountain flows into the Roanoke River, which provides drinking water to the entire 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 Carrico Sr., R-Richmond, 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.
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.”