Mountain Valley Pipeline is suing more than 40 people and two organizations that it says are unlawfully interfering with its efforts to complete a natural gas pipeline amid growing unrest.
The company is asking a judge to issue an injunction that would prevent opponents from entering construction areas, where they have temporarily delayed work at least a dozen times since July 5.
Filed last week in Montgomery County Circuit Court, the lawsuit also seeks to prohibit the organizing of such events and any "soliciting or accepting" of donations that might be used to fund them.
A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday morning.
Named as defendants are Appalachians Against Pipelines, an organization that often promotes the protests on social media, and Rising Tide North America, which Mountain Valley says is raising money for the events.
The lawsuit seeks more than $4 million in damages from the two groups and 41 individuals who have chained themselves to heavy equipment, walked onto restricted construction areas or taken other illegal steps against the highly controversial project.
"Defendants are individuals and organizations who are unwilling to accept the fact that the project has been approved," the lawsuit states. "Rather than abide by the statutes and court rulings authorizing completion of the project, defendants are determined to stop work by unlawful means."
A spokeswoman for Mountain Valley declined to comment on the pending litigation Monday.
Alan Graf, an attorney who in the past has monitored pipeline protests as an observer with the National Lawyers Guild, said the company is trying to silence its critics with a heavy handed threat of legal action and financial losses.
"This is a SLAPP suit on steroids," Graf said, referring to what are called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
"It is pure, outright intimidation," he said. "They don't care about winning the case. They care about getting their lawyers and legal staff to try to intimidate the common people who are out there trying to do something right."
A comment from Appalachians Against Pipelines, described by the lawsuit as a "clandestine organization" that encourages illegal resistance to the pipeline, was not available by 6 p.m.
Efforts to reach Rising Tide North America - which says on its website that it is an international, grassroots network of volunteers who confront the root causes of climate change - were unsuccessful.
For nearly two years, construction along Mountain Valley's 303-mile route - which passes through the New River and Roanoke valleys - was stalled by legal challenges.
Then Congress passed a law declaring the project in the national interest. Among other things, the law allowed Mountain Valley to bypass lawsuits filed in a federal appeals court that had repeatedly struck down its government permits on environmental grounds.
As bulldozers and construction crews returned to the mountains of Southwest Virginia, they were soon met with resistance.
At first, protesters carrying banners and chanting slogans walked onto the pipeline's right-of-way, briefly slowing work and then leaving before police arrived.
"As this protest shows, whatever the courts do, whatever congress does, the people will not let this pipeline be built!" Appalachians Against Pipelines wrote in a July 12 post to its Facebook page.
Later in the summer, protesters began to chain themselves to heavy equipment with lock boxes, causing longer delays as police worked for hours to extract them from the so-called "sleeping dragons." Five people - all from other states - have been arrested.
The lawsuit is against 16 named people and an additional 25 who are referred to as John Does. Mountain Valley said in the filing that it is working to identify those defendants and will add their names when it does.
Although company spokeswoman Natalie Cox declined Monday to comment on the lawsuit, she has earlier condemned the actions of opponents who break the law to make their points.
"The illegal and dangerous behaviors exhibited by certain protesters trespassing on the project right-of-way in recent weeks has served only to create unnecessary safety risks for themselves, project crew members, first responders, and our community members," she wrote in an email.
The way Graf sees it, the legal action is an attempt by a large corporation to finally squash non-violent public opposition that for years it has been unable to stop. "It shows that the people still have power," he said.
Laurence Hammack (540) firstname.lastname@example.org