ROANOKE, Va. – Update, 9:01 p.m.:
An MVP spokeswoman said in a statement the company respects the court’s process and consideration. See more below.
A federal judge said Tuesday evening she’s not ready to make a ruling on charges against three members of a Roanoke County family involved in protesting construction of a pipeline.
U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth Dillon, who issued a January court order to allow the Mountain Valley Pipeline project to move forward, heard arguments for four hours Tuesday afternoon in Roanoke’s Poff Federal Building. She said she will issue her decision “as soon as possible.”
The result could allow two tree-sitters to stay in their positions. If judge Dillon rules in favor of the pipeline company, she could issue fines for each day the protesters remain above ground or order U.S. Marshals to force them down. No parties present Tuesday elaborated on how members of law enforcement would do that.
MVP filed a motion for a contempt of court charge for five members of the Terry family April 20. Lawyers representing MVP agreed Tuesday to drop the charge for two family members before arguing that the other three have violated the January court order.
Theresa “Red” Terry, 61, and her daughter Minor Terry, 30, have spent the last month in covered platforms suspended in trees in two separate locations on the family’s Roanoke County property in Bent Mountain. They, along with Coles Terry III - who’s Red’s husband and Minor’s father - will await the judge’s ruling on a civil contempt charge.
The Terry’s lawyers argued Tuesday that MVP is in violation of the part of the January court order that specifies that tree cutting in a 70-plus mile area of the pipeline’s path must have been completed by March 31. According to them, since MVP continued cutting down trees after that date, it hasn’t obeyed the order and the Terry’s legal team has filed a cross-motion to hold the company in contempt, on which judge Dillon said she will also issue a decision.
“MVP misled the court or misled FERC or misled both,” attorney Tom Bondurant said.
More than 100 supporters of the Terry family filed inside the courtroom Tuesday afternoon, filling nearly all the seats available. Many people quietly groaned at some claims MVP lawyers made and let out audible signs of approval at the statements from the defense team, at one point prompting judge Dillon to ask those in attendance to remain quiet. Other supporters held signs outside the building.
MVP lead attorney Wade Massie argued that MVP has suffered harm as a result of the tree-sitters and the family should compensate the company as a result. He said the family should have brought their concerns to a court instead of trespassing on MVP land to make their case. He asked judge Dillon to use the U.S. Marshals to force down the tree-sitters, if necessary.
Massie brought witnesses to the stand to testify to the specifics of the tree-sitters’ locations, time spent on their platforms and conversations between the protesters and MVP contracted workers. The series of witnesses stated that the tree-sitters have cost MVP an additional $67,700 plus additional legal fees. They broke down the categories to include extra surveying work, time for security personnel and construction work.
Lawyers representing MVP declined to speak to 10 News when asked, and a spokeswoman did not immediately return a request for comment.
The Terry’s legal team argued the judge should order MVP to stop all tree-cutting immediately until there’s clarity on the March 31 deadline.
Aside from the defense’s main argument over MVP’s tree-cutting, lawyers with the firm Gentry Locke argued that Coles Terry should not be held in contempt because he did not instruct or encourage his wife and daughter to go up into the trees.
“I don't tell my wife to do much of anything. She tells me what to do most of the time,” Coles Terry said.
He said he’s optimistic that the judge will rule in his family’s favor.
“My lawyers did a great job. I hope we got our point across,” he said.
10 News asked Coles Terry to comment on whether or not a judge issuing fines would compel his wife and daughter to return from their positions, a topic on which the family has not commented previously.
“It might but we'll just have to wait and see,” he said.
As to the argument the MVP legal team put forth regarding their right to cut trees past the March 31 deadline, Terry said the attorneys weren’t being honest.
“What a bunch of liars,” he said.
MVP spokeswoman Natalie Cox sent a statement Tuesday night to 10 News saying the following:
"It is unfortunate that MVP had to take this additional legal action to enforce existing federal injunction orders that allow MVP to proceed with the approved project and prevent interference of the project's construction activities. We respect the court’s process and consideration in this matter."
A husband and wife in Franklin County face the same federal contempt charge as the Terry family members. A hearing is set for Friday in Roanoke for Carolyn and Ian Reilly, whose story 10 News told last week. They’re allowing tree-sitters, whose identity is unknown to the public, on their farm.