Standing Their Ground in the Path of the MVP

Jul 11, 2019

Construction continues on the Mountain Valley Pipeline in southwest Virginia, but several challenges to it remain unresolved. One that is still up in the air-- tree sitting protestors in Elliston. 

They’ve managed to hold their ground in an encampment along its route for almost a year, preventing construction, at least for now, in one small mountain hollow.

Credit Kurt Holtz

There’s been a loud silence since last winter when the Mountain Valley Pipeline company asked federal Judge Elizbeth Dillon to remove protestors camping out on a steep ravine in the path of the pipeline.

Tammy Belinski is an environmental lawyer who has been following the legal challenges. “The absence of a ruling so far, in my view, means that she doesn’t have a way to rule in Mountain Valley Pipelines’ favor.”

Belinksy points out Judge Dillon has consistently ruled in favor of the pipeline companies on eminent domain cases, that’s when the government can legally take people’s private land for public use and must compensate landowners when they do.

Belinksy believes the laws have long been written to favor pipeline companies. “I have incredible respect for the young people who are taking this matter into their own hands because they see the regulatory system isn’t working," Belinsky says. "They see that no one is protecting their future, no one is protecting their water, no one is protecting their air, so, they’re doing it.”

At the tree sitters’ encampment, on any given day there may be a dozen or more supporters, some living on site, some visiting.

“Other friends that have the dog, are they in a white van by any chance,”  asks one of the young men sitting at the entrance to the camp. They keep in communication with walkie talkies.  Cell service is spotty, especially here in the deep ravines.  It's better, they say, up in the tree stands near the forest canopy. But the message these protesters are sending is clear. “I’m someone who’s passionate about the environment,” he says, not wanting to share his name, “and so the notion of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure at the expense of ecology is unacceptable.”

Higher up on the mountain, tree sitters have been taking turns at the site known as ‘Yellow Finch,’ standing, sitting and sleeping in the trees.  “It's one thing to walk in a protest line,” says Crystal Mello. She spent a weekend in the tree to give the long-haul sitter a break. She enjoyed it.

The experience gave Mello a perspective on what the long-time sitters go through. “It was hot the day I went up but, (over the past year) there’s been snowstorms and floods and a lot of wild weather.  These tree sitters are very resilient.”  Mello lives nearby and helps support the sitters, as do a couple dozen or more people from the region. They say they’ve had visitors from all over the country, and beyond.  One from as far away as Germany.

But the hardcore live-ins, the ones who have given up their ‘other lives’ to  live on-site, are a dedicated, determined, and quiet crowd.  Most don’t want to call attention to themselves, only their cause. Their camp seems to grow like mushrooms after a rain. A new compost bin was being constructed when we visited. In the dim half-light, under the trees, tent sites for live-in supporters can be seen scattered around a central living area with containers and supplies overflowing the storage bins. There are makeshift tables and tarps in various stages of repair, in the main gathering space.  At night when the chores are done, people sit and talk around a fire, only this time of year it’s tiki torches –too hot for a fire.  But you need light to make sure you don’t tumble down the steep mountain.

Being out here for so long is “a bit challenging” says Phillip Flagg, “but it really helps that people are in it together and there is this atmosphere of like, we’re all doing this thing because we believe in something.  We’re not just, like camping and saying, ‘Oh gee this sucks I wish it were over.'  We’re here for this purpose and we’re going to be here as long as we have to be here.” He adds with a wry smile, “each one of us, in our individual lives, in our social circles, are kind of like the weird person, ‘the political friend."’  

Flagg spent six months this past winter on a platform up in a Chestnut Oak Tree. He sees the work he’s doing as, his job.  He tells me, after graduating from college with a psychology degree and working for political change, he decided this is what he wants to do with his life.  “For all the people that are here, we have pretty much given up any or all ties to normal society.  We don’t have jobs, we’re not paying rent somewhere, we’ve decided to give up everything else in our lives to do this because we think it’s the right thing to do and we can’t really imagine doing anything else with our lives.”

The 300 mile long Mountain Valley Pipeline is nearly 70% finished, according to published reports.  I ask Flagg how he thinks this fight will end?  His reply, “I still think we could stop the pipeline. They are still constructing, so each day we are one day closer to being completed. But then on the other hand, we also hear that a company that is also responsible for the pipeline is now being sued by the shareholders. They still don’t have all their permits.”  He speculates, “Who knows, maybe they could go out of business any day now, maybe they’ll be bought out.”

The tree sitters at Yellow Finch say they are prepared to stay encamped for as long as they can. The sitters say the police have been to their camp several times. “We don’t like them, and they don’t like us," he says. The site is on private land, but the landowners do not support the action.  Flagg says the landowners would like them to leave, but ‘what can they do’?

For the pipeline company, time is of the essence.  Costs rise as projected completion dates fade, due not only to delays caused by one of the rainiest years on record, unexpected stoppages and court challenges, but also, by this group of protestors determined to remain here as long as possible.

The company building the pipeline did not respond to our requests for comment for this story.