By Peggy Mackenzie
West Virginia landowners are facing lawsuits from natural gas producer EQT Corp. to force them to allow pipeline surveyors onto their property. EQT, along with NextEra Energy, plans to build a 300-mile pipeline from Wetzel County, WV, to another pipeline in Pittsylvania, VA. Called the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), the route will pass through Monroe, Greenbrier, Nicholas and Lewis counties.
In a letter to property owners, EQT’s attorney Stephen E. Hastings stated, “Because the West Virginia Legislature recognizes that this surveying process is so important, it has enacted West Virginia Code 54-1-1. et seq., which permits companies to enter upon lands for the purpose of examining, surveying, and laying out the lands, ways and easements by natural gas companies.” The letter closed with the threat of a lawsuit if landowners did not consent to permitting access by Mar. 9.
Local attorneys with Appalachian Mountain Advocates (AMA) are offering their services to local landowners in filing injunctions against EQT’s threats.
“If a landowner is sued by a pipeline company for access to their private property to survey, we will represent them for free,” stated AMA attorney Joe Lovett. “I do not believe that WV law gives corporations the right to come on private property without first getting the declaration of eminent domain from Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).”
Currently, neither EQT nor NextEra have the right to claim eminent domain since they have not officially filed an application with FERC to construct the pipeline.
Isak Howell, also with AMA, said, in a report in The Register-Herald, landowners in West Virginia have the right to say who can and cannot enter their property.
“Just the legal definition of private property gives the landowner the ability to exclude certain people from their property, “ he said. “Private companies with a private purpose cannot enter another person’s land without permission.”
Under that legal definition, eminent domain can be used by a government for a project benefiting the community, such as a firehouse, road or school.
However, the issue here is interpretive. In cases that have reached the U.S. Supreme Court, decisions were made in favor of governments seeking land, even when commerce is involved. It remains to be seen how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule.
Critics of the process maintain that local and state governments are too quick to invoke eminent domain on behalf of businesses because of the potential for tax revenue generation and job creation.
Meanwhile, the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline has drawn a great deal of opposition in Greenbrier and surrounding counties. Property owners and nearby residents are seriously concerned about a 42-inch, high pressure pipeline snaking up and down steep mountains. In many cases, the path passes less than 150 feet from their homes. Many property owners have reported that surveys have occurred without their consent while they were at work or out of town.
Recent history has shown that disasters do occur. Along with water quality, potential leaks, explosions, and decreased property values continue to be a main concern.