Roanoke County defends handling of Bent Mountain pipeline protest

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ROANOKE CO., Va. (WDBJ7) Red Terry climbed into her tree stand over two weeks ago.

Along with her daughter, who is located in a different tree stand nearby, she is preventing Mountain Valley Pipeline crews from completing tree-felling on the family's Bent Mountain property.

When a group of lawmakers raised concerns about the state's oversight of the pipeline project on Wednesday in Richmond, speakers also criticized local authorities for cutting off supplies from the tree-sitters' supporters.

Jonathan Sokolow is a pipeline opponent with the Northern Virginia Pipeline Action Group.

"Starving somebody in Virginia is unacceptable in the 21st century for exercising your first amendment right to protest in your own tree on your own land," Sokolow said during the news conference Wednesday.

"What I heard yesterday was not factual and was in my mind unduly derisive of our public safety officers that are handling the incident in Roanoke County," countered Roanoke County Chief of Police Howard Hall. "I think it's unfortunate that the people that made those statements made no effort to contact anybody in Roanoke County before they made those statements."

Hall said the department hasn't taken sides in the pipeline dispute, but is obligated to enforce a valid court order.

While authorities have denied a request for cigarettes, and stopped supporters from delivering supplies, Hall said Roanoke County is ensuring the tree sitters' physical needs are met.

"I absolutely take issue to the suggestion that we've deprived anybody of anything," Hall said in an interview Thursday. "I think we have gone out of our way to continually assess what's going on up there and the physical condition of the folks in the trees and we will continue to do that."

The county has been making daily wellness checks, and so far Hall says there is no indication the tree-sitters have run out of food and water, or have other medical issues.

They are now facing charges.

A magistrate issued warrants on Wednesday.

For now, Hall says the department is trying to be patient as it encourages the tree sitters to come down.

Folllowing is the text of a written statement Roanoke County released Thursday afternoon:

"(Roanoke County, VA—April 19, 2018) With regard to recent comments by several legislative representatives regarding the manner in which the Roanoke County Police Department is addressing ongoing protests of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, statements suggesting inhumane treatment of individuals is factually wrong and needlessly disparaging of our public safety staff."

"While protesters occupying tree stands in defiance of the federal court order have been denied supplies from their supporters, Roanoke County will ensure their physical needs are being met.
In addition, routine wellness checks of protesters have been initiated by qualified emergency medical staff. To date, the protesters have indicated they have all necessary supplies and they have reported no medical concerns to our staff. Interactions with those protesting the Mountain Valley Pipeline have been cordial and well‐received. County public safety staff will remain diligent in ensuring enforcement of the federal court order while protecting the health
and safety of all concerned."

"Roanoke County has consistently and publicly stated that it will follow the direction determined by the court system as it applies to the MVP project. The federal and state courts have ruled consistently in favor of MVP. The Roanoke County Police Department is not taking sides in this matter. As a local law enforcement agency, the Roanoke County Police Department is required to follow the instructions ordered by the federal court as well as the laws of the Commonwealth which have been determined to permit the use of eminent domain for this project."

"The primary role of the Police Department is to ensure the safety of our citizens and enforce the law. They are not there to contest decisions made by the FERC, the court system, state regulatory agencies, or the General Assembly in regards to construction activities or deadlines."

"Questions or concerns about those decisions can be taken up with those entities, not the Police Department. Neither the Police Department nor the County government has any regulatory authority to determine whether the pipeline can be built or what route it will take."

"The 3/7/18 federal court order granted MVP property rights to immediate possession of easements gained through the laws of eminent domain. That order states that defendants and their agents, servants, employees, and those in active concert and participation with them, are prohibited from delaying, obstructing, or interfering with access to or use of the easements by MVP or its agents, servants, employees, or contractors. Per the court order, the individuals in the trees are in the easement granted to MVP and actively delaying, obstructing, and interfering with the use of the easement by MVP, therefore, those individuals are in violation of
the federal court order and subject to charges being placed against them."

"A magistrate on Wednesday issued arrest warrants for the two individuals. The charges include Trespass after having been forbidden to do so (Code of VA 18.2‐119); Interfering with property
rights (Code of VA 18.2‐121); and Obstruction of justice (Code of VA 18.2‐460)."

"We encourage people to review this information and more that is available on the Roanoke County website: www.RoanokeCountyVA.gov/MVP"