Police talk with Virginia Tech professor Emily Satterwhite, who locked herself to a piece of construction equipment last month in Montgomery County to protest the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Photo courtesy of Appalachians Against Pipelines.
Construction has begun on one of two major natural gas pipelines in Virginia and state and local officials have already reported spending almost $126,000 responding to protests aimed at halting work.
It’s a number that is only likely to rise this year as construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline progresses and work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline begins, raising questions among some local officials about just who should pay for all that policing.
At least two counties have discussed seeking reimbursements from the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s lead developer, EQT Midstream Partners.
Other governments and agencies, including the Virginia State Police, said they’re planning to shoulder the cost themselves.
“We knew the pipelines are coming so we’re obviously going to make sure we have the funding available and the personnel available to respond to requests for our assistance,” said agency spokeswoman Corrinne Geller.
The State Police reported spending $33,944 on overtime responding to the tree sits on Bent Mountain, the longest of which lasted 34 days. Geller said that the department’s planning aims to minimize costs, for instance, by calling on local troopers to respond and adjust schedules to limit overtime.
That spending joins nearly $50,000 the State Police spent to monitor meetings of the State Water Control Board last year as it considered water-quality certifications for the projects, according to records obtained by the Associated Press.
A spokeswoman for Roanoke County police said it cost the department $91,955 to respond to the Bent Mountain sits, mostly for overtime for officers, who monitored the protesters around the clock.
Unlike the state, officials there are evaluating whether they will seek reimbursement, according to The Roanoke Times.
Theresa “Red” Terry and her daughter Theresa Minor Terry camped out in trees for weeks on their Bent Mountain land to block the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
“The issues that took place there at the Terrys’ were out of the ordinary and they tied up a lot of people for a significant period of time,” Assistant County Administrator Richard Caywood told the paper. “We could kind of directly capture and point at that.”
Roanoke County would be following the lead of officials in Franklin County, where members of the Board of Supervisors have said they’ve formally requested reimbursement from Mountain Valley Pipeline because they had been assured the pipeline construction would not cost the locality any money.
A spokeswoman for EQT Midstream Partners did not explicitly rule out the potential for reimbursement but said in an email “no formal arrangements made for reimbursing any locality along the MVP route for public safety-related expenses associated with construction of the project.”
Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for Dominion, the lead partner in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which has cleared trees along the route but not begun full construction in Virginia pending additional state approvals, said the company had not made any cost-sharing agreements with law enforcement.
Both Roanoke and Franklin county have relatively well-resourced police departments. In the event of prolonged protests in some of the state’s smaller localities, though, the issue could be a budget buster. Bath County’s sheriff’s department, for instance, operates on an annual budget of less than $1 million a year.
For what it’s worth, the chairman of the Bath Board of Supervisors, Richard Byrd, said he doesn’t think construction in his county will prompt the same level of protest that Roanoke County has seen, but he said that depends on whether groups he described as outside agitators stay away.
In either case, it’s not clear that local officials actually have an obligation to respond to the protests in the first place. Some pipeline construction is on federal land, such as the domain of the U.S. Forest Service, which has its own law enforcement arm.
On private land, taken through federal eminent domain proceedings, enforcement on those federal rights of way would technically be up to the U.S. Marshals Service.
The federal judge who effectively ended the Bent Mountain tree sit spearheaded by Terry by threatening to levy big fines also authorized marshals to take over the situation and, if necessary, bring the protesters down by force.
The federal-local enforcement debate has played out recently in the context of immigration enforcement, with some localities saying they will not enforce federal immigration law and others entering into partnership agreements with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Steve Benjamin, a Richmond defense attorney.
But he said while the federal government has no power to require local agencies to enforce federal law, grant funding is often used as leverage.
In practice, local, state and federal authorities work together on law enforcement all the time through a variety of task forces and mutual-aid agreements, said Tod W. Burke, a former police officer and recently retired professor of criminal justice at Radford University.
“You don’t tell the public, we’re not going to get involved because we can’t afford it, you make it work,” he said, and letting politics guide the decision would be a “mistake.”
In the case of the state police, Geller noted the agency’s mission is to support law enforcement agencies around the state.
And even in counties where county leaders publicly oppose the project, so far no one is suggesting law enforcement stop responding to protests, regardless of politics or costs.
In Montgomery County, where a Virginia Tech professor chained herself to an excavator earlier this month, Supervisor Sara Bohn said the sheriff’s office assured her board that it has all the funding and manpower it needs to address issues as they arrive.
“The sheriff is there to do his job and it’s the same thing for me,” she said. “I’m going to do everything I can to support my constituents, and I learned a long time ago to do it within legal means.”
Editor Robert Zullo contributed.
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