NEW CASTLE — Two Ohio men pleaded no contest Tuesday in Craig County District Court to misdemeanor trespassing charges tied to surveying work for the Mountain Valley Pipeline project.
The charges against Josiah Kleinhens, 19, and Lawrence Brewer, 62, will be dismissed in six months, provided the men and law enforcement do not cross paths again.
Separately, Mountain Valley officials said Tuesday that a route, known as alternate 110, that would traverse Craig County remains in play as the company works to nail down the final path for the proposed 42-inch-diameter, 300-mile natural gas transmission pipeline.
A letter to U.S. Sen. Mark Warner dated July 16 from Norman Bay, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, reported that the panel had not held a pipeline-related scoping meeting in Craig County “because the planned pipeline route does not cross that county.”
FERC will determine whether the $3.2 billion project should proceed.
On May 26, Kleinhens and Brewer attracted the attention of residents of the Foxfire subdivision in Craig County after using a posted private drive to gain access to the Jefferson National Forest, where they were said to be surveying for evidence of threatened or endangered species along a possible pipeline route.
The subdivision also featured signs specifically denying access for pipeline survey work.
Neighbors confronted the men when they emerged from the forest and called the sheriff’s office. Authorities arrested Kleinhens and Brewer on three counts each of trespassing. The neighbors who brought charges were Nancy Nemec, Kenneth Moles and Kenneth Broughman.
Kleinhens and Brewer are employees of Environmental Services and Innovations, a Cincinnati-based subcontractor to Tetra Tech, the pipeline’s lead environmental survey contractor.
On Tuesday, Nemec, Moles and Broughman were in district court, where a trial had been scheduled. The Foxfire residents expressed frustration that lawyer Ray Byrd, who represented Brewer, suggested during the hearing that the men believed they had permission to proceed across private property.
“We just like to see people take responsibility for their actions and abide by the law,” Broughman said, noting that the men had driven by numerous “no trespassing” signs.
Nemec and Broughman said they sent letters to Mountain Valley denying the private company access for surveying. Nemec said her property could end up being adjacent to a pipeline route.
She said Tuesday that the surveyors’ arrest and court hearing “help us send a message to the company” that the pipeline is not welcome.
If FERC approves the project, Mountain Valley will have eminent domain to acquire rights-of-way across private property if negotiations fail to yield an acceptable price for an easement.
Mountain Valley is in the pre-filing phase of seeking FERC approval. The company has said it intends to file a formal application with the commission this fall and hopes construction can begin in late 2016.
FERC and a contractor are working on a draft environmental impact statement. And survey crews hired by contractors for Mountain Valley are in the field, examining a host of variables in the quest for presenting a final pipeline route to FERC.
A joint venture of EQT Corp., NextEra Energy, WGL Holdings and Vega Energy Partners, Mountain Valley Pipeline plans to build a line from Wetzel County, West Virginia, to another transmission pipeline in Pittsylvania County.
Alternative routes proposed by Mountain Valley could take the pipeline through the Virginia counties of Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin en route to Pittsylvania County.
Maurice Royster, a government affairs manager for EQT Corp., recently alerted county administrators in Giles, Craig and Montgomery counties that “a significant amount of work remains to be done before we can determine the final proposed route for the project.”
Royster said it is premature to eliminate routes from consideration.
David Perry, executive director of the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy and a member of Roanoke County’s pipeline advisory committee, said Tuesday that Bay’s statement that a “planned pipeline route does not cross” Craig County is inaccurate.
“To the landowners on those alternative routes and groups like the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy, who have an interest in protecting conserved lands, the threat is very real,” Perry said.
“We’ve been told all routes are on the table, and in fact pipeline contractors are surveying them right now,” he said.
Or attempting to.
Mountain Valley has said it will seek a court order to gain access to survey properties where owners have denied permission for that work.
After Tuesday’s court hearing, Kleinhens said he was satisfied with the outcome. When told that Foxfire residents believed he and Brewer had known they were trespassing, Kleinhens declined to comment.
“I’m not going to answer any more questions,” he said.