ROANOKE, Va. — Roanoke County police have filed criminal charges against a mother and daughter holed up in trees to block a natural gas pipeline from crossing their family land. But the women remained beyond the reach of the law Thursday from their perches.
Theresa Ellen Terry — a blunt-talking 61-year-old who goes by the nickname Red — was charged with trespassing, obstruction of justice and interfering with the property rights of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Similar charges were brought against her daughter, Theresa Minor Terry, 30, as a standoff that has captured statewide attention neared the end of its third week.
“They’re not taking my property without a fight,” Theresa “Red” Terry said by telephone Thursday from her tree stand in the woods off Poor Mountain Road.
After obtaining the charges from a magistrate on Wednesday, Roanoke County police made no effort to arrest the two women, holding out hope they will come down on their own.
“Interactions with those protesting the Mountain Valley Pipeline have been cordial and well-received,” county spokeswoman Amy Whittaker said in a news release. “County public safety staff will remain diligent in ensuring enforcement of the federal court order while protecting the health and safety of all concerned.”
Over the Terrys’ objections, Mountain Valley obtained an easement to run its natural gas pipeline through their land by invoking its legal power of eminent domain, which allows the taking of private land for a public use. A Jan. 31 ruling by a federal judge against nearly 300 landowners allowed the project to proceed.
The company’s plans were complicated when the two women camped out in trees that need to be cut down along the pipeline’s right of way before full-scale construction can begin.
The tree-sit protest — along with a similar stand that began Feb. 26 along the pipeline’s route through the Jefferson National Forest — has galvanized opponents who say the project will cause widespread environmental damage.
Signs and T-shirts proclaiming “Stand With Red” were on display Wednesday in Richmond, when more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers called for tougher enforcement of state environmental regulations for Mountain Valley and a similar project, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, that will cut through central Virginia.
Chuck Lollar, a Norfolk attorney who represented the Terrys in federal court, said he hopes the movement will also shed more light on the issue of property rights.
“The emotional and financial impact the gas pipeline projects have had on the lives of hundreds of citizens who have been sued in federal court for their opposition to the acquisition of the land of their forefathers against their will, for private more than public interests, is far greater than most of us will ever realize,” he wrote in an email.
Some speakers at Wednesday’s news conference said it was inhumane for Roanoke County to cut off food and water to the tree sitters, an assertion contested in Whittaker’s news release.
“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,” the release said.
Paramedics are checking on the Terrys, she said, and so far the women “have indicated they have all necessary supplies and they have reported no medical concerns to our staff.”
But with the criminal charges brought Wednesday, the county faced new criticism — especially for accusing two people of trespassing on their own family’s land.
“The reason MVP and the Roanoke County police consider Red such a threat and are using such heavy-handed tactics against her is that she is showing that David has a chance of defeating Goliath,” said Alan Graf, a legal observer who has been monitoring the tree-sit protests on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild.
Mountain Valley officials have said they have received all the regulatory and legal approvals required for the company to build a 303-mile buried pipeline that will pump natural gas at high pressure through West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.
“While we respect the opinions of those who remain opposed to the MVP project, our first priority is ensuring the safety of everyone — including residents, our employees, contractors, supporters, opponents and law enforcement officers — in communities along the route,” spokeswoman Natalie Cox said.
Such comments have failed to appease opponents.
“They have been nothing but pompous asses up here,” Theresa “Red” Terry said. “They have thrown themselves around like they own the whole … mountain, and if somebody gets in their way they will swat you like a gnat.”
Terry said she has no plans to surrender her tree stand, wedged between an oak and a maple near Bottom Creek, a pristine stream that she fears the pipeline will contaminate.
“I’ve thrown a wrench into things,” she said, “and, by God, they’re going to throw the book at me.”