A protester could die if authorities continue to deny her food and water as she nears one month atop a pole blocking construction of a natural gas pipeline, two attorneys say in a letter to the U.S. Forest Service.
Since March 28, the woman has been living on a small platform suspended from a 50-foot pole. The barricade was erected in the middle of an access road needed to build a segment of the Mountain Valley Pipeline through the Jefferson National Forest in Giles County.
Forest Service law enforcement officers have cordoned off the so-called monopod sitter and are preventing supporters in a nearby camp from supplying her with food and water, according to court documents.
“The Forest Service’s actions in continuing to starve her out are tantamount to torture and contrary to human rights and international law,” Floyd County attorneys Alan Graf and Tammy Belinsky wrote in a letter faxed Wednesday to Roanoke-based Forest Supervisor Joby Timm.
“Mr. Timm, you have a duty to protect the health and welfare of a United States citizen,” the letter stated. “The death or significant injury to the pod-sitter will be on your shoulders should that transpire.”
In an April 6 email through a spokeswoman, Timm said the woman was not being denied food or water and is free to leave her monopod, which sits in a portion of the national forest that has been closed for pipeline construction.
The attorneys question that statement. Since Monday, the Forest Service spokeswoman has not provided answers to repeated phone calls and emailed questions from The Roanoke Times.
On the day her protest began, the woman said in an interview from her station that she hoped to stop Mountain Valley construction crews — and anyone else who might use Pocahontas Road in an effort to remove two more protesters sitting in trees along the pipeline’s right of way at the top of nearby Peters Mountain. Since then, one of the tree-sitters has come down voluntarily.
“Quite a while,” the woman said when asked how long she might last. “I’ve got a massive amount of snacks.” Although she declined to give her name at the time, the woman has since been identified on social media by her nickname, Nutty.
“She has held her ground through snow, sleet, hail, heavy winds, driving rain, freezing nights, and (a few) scorching afternoons,” Appalachians Against Pipelines, a group that has been documenting the protests, said on its Facebook page Thursday.
For a while, Nutty’s supporters hoisted food and water up to her in plastic buckets on a rope. Then Forest Service officials set up an around-the-clock patrol of the pod, cutting off supplies and forcing the ground team to move its camp farther back into the woods.
Concerned that she was not getting the sustenance she needed, several protesters attempted to break through the police line on Sunday while carrying backpacks filled with food. At least two men who “made a dash” toward the monopod were arrested and charged with violating the closure order and resisting Forest Service officials, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Roanoke.
The Forest Service’s response to the protesters differs from that of Roanoke County police, who are dealing with a similar situation where the pipeline will cross Bent Mountain.
County officials have said publicly that they will provide food and water upon request to two tree-sitters who since early April have been blocking the pipeline’s route on land that has been in their family for seven generations. County spokeswoman Amy Whittaker said the women are receiving three bagged meals a day.
However, county police are preventing supporters from supplying the women and have taken other actions aimed at ending the standoff.
Theresa “Red” Terry, 61, and her daughter, Theresa Minor Terry, have been charged with trespassing, even though they are on land their family owns. County police have also issued warrants against them for obstruction of justice and interfering with the property rights of Mountain Valley, which was granted an easement through the land by invoking its power of eminent domain in federal court.
Mountain Valley is asking a federal judge to find the Terrys in contempt of court and order U.S. Marshals to remove them from their tree stands. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
Although the Forest Service made no public comments this week, Graf and Belinsky addressed in their letter one possible scenario: that authorities have offered the monopod sitter food and water on the condition that she come down from her stand.
“But, at this point, no agency nor independent inspector has ascertained the health and cognizant status of the pod-sitter,” they wrote. “No one knows whether she has the strength or volition to leave the pod.”
Graf and Belinsky do not formally represent the woman. Both lawyers have ties to opposition that has grown since Mountain Valley Pipeline, a consortium of five energy companies, announced plans in 2014 to build a 303-mile pipeline to transport natural gas at high pressure from northern West Virginia through the New River and Roanoke valleys to Pittsylvania County.
Critics say the pipeline will cause widespread environmental damage. Supporters argue it will provide needed jobs and natural gas and point out that Mountain Valley has met all the regulatory and legal requirements for a project that opponents are now trying to stop unlawfully.
Graf has been monitoring the protests on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive bar association that advocates for human rights demonstrators. Belinsky is involved in pipeline legal actions that include a lawsuit against the State Water Control Board, which issued a water quality certification to Mountain Valley last year.
Concerns about “starvation and isolation tactics” used against the protesters were first raised by Graf and Belinsky in an April 9 letter to the Forest Service.
“The death or harm to any of these individuals caused in part by the Forest Service’s extreme methods could also be the subject of future litigation,” the letter stated.
On Thursday, Graf said he had yet to receive a response from the Forest Service addressing those concerns.