Baton Rouge prosecutors announced Friday they would not pursue criminal charges against two New Orleans environmental activists arrested on terrorizing counts after leaving a box of plastic pellets on the doorstep of a chemical industry lobbyist.
The decision ends a controversial case that raised questions about whether the charges were appropriate since the stunt was relatively harmless, part of a Baton Rouge event in December 2019 aimed at raising awareness about plastic pollution. The plastic pellets inside the box, called nurdles, were collected from Texas bays near a plastic manufacturing facility owned by Formosa Plastics.
Anne Rolfes and Kate McIntosh, environmental activists with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, were booked into the Baton Rouge jail in June after police notified them about the pending charges. Rolfes was booked with terrorizing, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. McIntosh was booked with principal to terrorizing. Each was released on $5,000 bond.
The Bucket Brigade has expressed staunch opposition to a proposed chemical plant set to be constructed in St. James Parish by a Formosa affiliate. Several environmental groups have sued to block critical permits that would allow construction to begin. The litigation is ongoing.
About a year after the alleged offense, the East Baton Rouge District Attorney's Office announced a decision: The women will not be prosecuted.
"This was serious retaliation even though these completely baseless charges were ultimately rejected," said Rachel Conner, an attorney representing the two women. "But my clients are not deterred by this flexing of power by the petrochemical industry."
First Assistant District Attorney Tracey Barbera said in court Friday that the decision was made after a review of the facts and applicable law. Barbera also warned Rolfes, 52, and McIntosh, 26, that any future entry onto the complainant's property would be considered unauthorized and unwelcome.
The box in question was left on the doorstep of a house belonging to Greg Bowser, president of Louisiana Chemical Association. After the item was reported to police as suspicious, a hazmat team was called to the scene. The team discovered "trash and plastic," according to police reports. Video footage showed the women leaving the package on the porch and running back to their rental car.
The legal definition of terrorizing is intentionally causing fear to the general public, causing evacuation of a building or other serious disruption to the general public.
The box had a note attached that said the plastic pellets should not be removed from their packaging, left around children or pets and should be recycled responsibly. "These are just some of the billions of nurdles that Formosa Plastics dumped into the coastal waters of the state of Texas," the note said, according to a copy provided by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. "These were used as evidence in a landmark lawsuit filed against Formosa under the Clean Water Act."
The note triggered the terrorizing charges. Baton Rouge police wrote in an arrest warrant that "it was obvious" the women were trying to instill fear in the homeowners or intimidate them with hazardous materials.
"I think there's a clear hypocrisy in labeling these plastic pellets hazardous materials when they're left on someone's doorstep in a sealed container, but when they're dumped into our environment, they're treated as byproducts of a necessary industry," said Conner, the women's attorney. She said the box was meant to protest chemical pollution, and the protest was protected under the First Amendment, and any claims to the contrary are bogus.
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Other Baton Rouge residents connected to the chemical industry also reported receiving boxes of nurdles around the same time but declined to pursue police action, District Attorney Hillar Moore III said.
Moore said Friday that his office looked at many different Louisiana statutes — including trespassing and intentional littering — to see if this unusual set of facts matched the definition of other criminal acts. They were not successful, but Moore said he understands Bowser's frustration over what happened.
"This man's home with his wife and children should be left alone," Moore said. "Of course people have the right to protest, but they can do that at someone's office."
He said if the women show up on Bowser's property again, that act would be considered trespassing because this time they've been warned.