by Jonathan Sokolow
In another stunning defeat for Mountain Valley Pipeline, a federal district court judge has denied the pipeline company’s request for an order removing tree sitters in southwest Virginia.
Judge Elizabeth Dillon, in a fourteen page opinion, ruled that MVP had no right to add the tree sitters – who have been occupying trees in Elliston, Virginia for almost one year – as parties to an eminent domain case against the owners of the land on which the trees are located. Dillon noted that there was no evidence that the landowners were acting in concert with the tree sitters. She also noted that this is a condemnation proceeding to determine how much the landowners would be paid by MVP in return for the destruction of the land wrought by construction.
The tree sitters, Dillon noted, are not seeking compensation. Rather, Dillon noted, “the tree-sitters clearly seem to be protesting the pipeline as a whole.”
Dillon also noted that MVP has other options, such as bringing a state court action for trespass, or seeking a contempt ruling in federal court. But since these are obvious alternatives, MVP must know that it would have difficulty prevailing in those actions. How do we know that? Because MVP filed its motion to evict the tree sitters last December. The ruling was just issued today. Presumably, if MVP had a good chance of prevailing in some other manner, they would have done something by now.
Dillon observed, for example, that the landowners could claim that they were entitled to remove the tree sitters under Virginia’s law of adverse possession. One problem with that? To prove adverse possession MVP would have to show that the tree sitters occupation of the trees was “actual, hostile [meaning under a claim of right and adverse to the owner], exclusive, visible, and continuous for a period of 15 years.”
As the court wryly observed, the landowners “failure to take action against the tree-sitters could eventually result in a property claim by the tree-sitters, but there is not one now.”
What happens next is not clear. What is clear is that the treesitters, pipeline opponents and anyone who cares about clean water and clean air just won an undeniably huge victory in federal court.
Yesterday, we learned that Precision Pipeline, the company that is building the MVP, has a history of killing its workers in their haste to finish pipeline projects. It is time to stop this corporate criminal.
It is time to celebrate this court victory and then recommit to the fight to stop this $5 billion corporate boondoggle.