Federal court won’t give pipeline injunction to remove tree sitters

Workers had begun laying portions of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Roanoke County near the Blue Ridge Parkway last summer. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - July 26,2018)

A federal court on Friday denied Mountain Valley Pipeline’s request for a preliminary injunction against two unnamed tree sitters who have been blocking the company from clearing land for construction for almost a year.

The opinion by Judge Elizabeth Dillon in the U.S. District Court for the Western District in Virginia refuses to grant the injunction on procedural grounds.

Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC, in December 2018 had added the tree sitters as parties in the eminent domain case between the company and the owners of the land that the sitters are currently occupying “in order to ensure that they are bound by the Court’s decisions granting immediate possession to MVP.”

But Dillon found Friday that because the tree sitters don’t have a specific property claim on the land they are occupying and instead “clearly seem to be protesting the pipeline as a whole,” they can’t be added as parties to the case. As a result, she rejected MVP’s call for an injunction.

“The court is cognizant of MVP’s frustration with this situation and with the obstructive actions of the tree-sitters and their supporters,” her opinion stated. “However, MVP has other options for relief — under both state and federal law — that it can pursue.”

Other options listed include filing charges against the tree sitters for trespass or interference with easements in state court or seeking contempt sanctions against the protestors in federal court.

Two attorneys, Tammy Belinsky and Daniel Breslau, previously filed an amicus brief opposing the injunction.

Tree sitting has become a popular strategy among activists and landowners fighting the Mountain Valley Pipeline. But when landowners themselves have taken to the trees to oppose the seizure of their property by eminent domain, Dillon has ruled in favor of MVP.

Dillon’s opinion was the first of two blows that fell on the MVP Friday. Later in the day, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality issued a stop-work instruction for a two-mile stretch of the pipeline in Montgomery County due to insufficient erosion and sediment controls.