UNION, W.Va. — As several pipeline protesters continue to live on platforms in trees along the intended path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a judge is determining whether they’re illegally blocking the pipeline’s progress.
Monroe Circuit Judge Robert Irons has set a hearing for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday as a continued examination of a preliminary injunction request against the protesters.
MORE: Read Judge Irons’ order.
The drama on the mountain and in the courthouse is part of the overall conflict over development of the $3.5 billion, 303-mile project.
The Tuesday hearing boils down to whether or not the protesters are actually in an area of national forest where the Mountain Valley Pipeline developers have gotten federal approval to start felling trees.
The pipeline developers claim that two or more protesters are blocking the area where it needs to fell trees by the end of this month to maintain its schedule.
The pipeline developers are trying to get the trees cleared during a window meant to lessen the impact on migratory bird and bat habitats.
The protesters have been in the trees in an area of Peter’s Mountain in West Virginia, near the Virginia border, since late February.
Mountain Valley Pipeline filed for injunctive relief on March 2.
Judge Irons granted a temporary restraining order March 13, but the tree sitters remained where they were. And some questions that were raised in court still needed to be answered.
One was whether Mountain Valley Pipeline had properly demonstrated it had official notice to proceed within the boundaries of the Appalachian Scenic Trail in West Virginia.
Judge Irons wrote in an order filed Friday that the pipeline company has filed the related document from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Meanwhile, the protesters — part of a group called Appalachians Against Pipelines — filed an affidavit purporting to show the area in question is actually outside the area for which Mountain Valley Pipeline has a permit and also outside the area in which the Jefferson National Forest would be closed to such activities.
“The Court has reviewed these documents and has considered the evidence offered at the previous hearing, and it appears there is a credible issue as to whether or not the area in question is within the permitted area in which the petitioners activities are allowed to occur,” Judge Irons wrote this past Friday.
Only two of the protesters with Appalachians Against Pipelines have been named in the court filings. They are Ashley Brown and Lucas Connolly, but Mountain Valley’s lawyers contend there are several more who are named as John Does.
The pipeline protest, which is in a steep section of Peter’s Mountain, has caught public attention. On Sunday, a group of supporters gathered to rally at a nearby access road.
Legal fights over the pipeline are also continuing in federal appeals court.
But the developers have gotten permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to begin the first steps in its construction process by starting to fell trees.
The pipeline would extend 42-inch diameter natural gas pipeline to transport West Virginia natural gas into southern Virginia.
The project would go through Greenbrier, Monroe, Nicholas, Summers, Braxton, Harrison, Lewis, Webster and Wetzel counties.
The company says full construction is on track to begin in the spring and completion of the project in late 2019.