The path to building a natural gas pipeline led to a packed courtroom Friday in Roanoke’s federal court, where landowners are fighting efforts by Mountain Valley Pipeline to take their property for the project.

Before it can start construction on the buried pipeline, Mountain Valley must force its way onto nearly 300 properties by obtaining easements through the legal process of eminent domain.

“It would cut my farm in half,” Michael Williams testified of the pipeline’s impact on his Giles County property.

In a hearing that lasted into the night Friday and will continue Saturday morning, attorneys for Williams and nearly 200 other landowners argued that the company should not be granted access to the land — at least not until it meets all the regulatory requirements that are a prerequisite to construction and completes plans that remain in flux.

Attorneys also questioned the pace of a construction schedule that calls for tree cutting and other preliminary work to begin by Feb. 1.

“There is an unseemly rush here,” said Paul Terpak, one of nearly a dozen lawyers representing the landowners. “We need a tap on the brakes to slow down and let things mature.”

The right of eminent domain — which allows the taking of private land for a public use such as a highway or bridge — is usually reserved for governmental bodies.

As a private company, Mountain Valley obtained that power from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which determined in October that there was a public need for the pipeline.

Attorneys for Mountain Valley are seeking an order from U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Dillon that would allow the company to condemn easements on rural properties in the counties of Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke, Franklin and Pittsylvania.

The pipeline company is also seeking immediate access to the land, while the issue of how much it must pay the property owners is delayed until another day in court.

Tree cutting needs to start by Feb. 1, the company contends, to meet deadlines imposed to protect endangered species of bats and migratory birds.

Robert Cooper, who will lead the project as MVP’s senior vice president of engineering and construction, explained that the company faces a narrow window to have all trees in the pipeline’s path felled by March 31, before bats emerge from hibernation caves and start to roost in trees.

The deadline for protected migratory birds is May 31.

If Mountain Valley is not able to meet those goals, it would have to delay construction nearly a year until Nov. 15, after the bats return to their caves and the birds fly south.

That would cost the company up to $50 million a month in lost revenue and another $200 million in additional construction costs due to cancellation fees paid to contractors and other expenses, Cooper testified. The total budget for the pipeline is $3.7 billion.

Because a delay would cause “irreparable harm,” Mountain Valley is entitled to an order granting immediate access to the land, the company’s attorney, Wade Massie, told Dillon.

About 85 percent of the land needed for the pipeline in Virginia and West Virginia has already been acquired through voluntary agreements between the company and landowners.

According to court filings, the company has offered at least $3,000 for easements to the properties.

As proposed, the 42-inch diameter steel pipe would run 303 miles from northern West Virginia to Pittsylvania County, where it would connect with another pipeline that will distribute the gas through the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions of the country.

At the beginning of Friday’s hearing, Dillon delayed ruling on a motion to stay the proceedings.

Derek Teaney, an attorney for Appalachian Mountain Advocates, said the delay is needed because the landowners he represents are powerless to challenge the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s determination that there’s a public need for the pipeline and its subsequent approval of the project.

After the landowners asked for a rehearing by FERC, the agency issued what’s called a tolling order — delaying a final decision that might be challenged in court while allowing construction to proceed.

“It’s final for some purposes, but it’s not final for other purposes,” Teaney said. “It’s an absolutely twisted situation.”

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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