Over the past month, at least 13 people have been arrested under a new state law that increases criminal penalties for trespassing near pipelines, as protests targeting the controversial Bayou Bridge project continue in the swamps of St. Martin Parish.
The Louisiana Legislature this year passed by an overwhelming majority Act 692, which lets law enforcement officers charge people with felonies when they trespass on "critical infrastructure" facilities, including pipeline rights-of-way.
The law took effect Aug. 1. And since then, St. Martin deputies, along with state probation and parole officers providing private security, have arrested a number of protesters affiliated with the L'eau Est La Vie Camp.
Members are seeking to slow construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline, which is designed to carry crude oil from Lake Charles to St. James Parish. Protesters have sat in trees and floated on kayaks in the water near the pipeline construction sites to voice their opposition.
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The demonstrators have questioned the tactics of law enforcement officers making the arrests. Pipeline supporters, however, say the environmentalists are endangering the very ecosystem they purport to love.
Despite legal and physical attempts to block pipeline construction, Bayou Bridge is more than 85 percent complete and scheduled to be finished in October, said Alexis Daniel, spokeswoman for Energy Transfer Partners, the majority shareholder on the project.
After months of challenges, some in courtrooms and some at work sites, the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is expected to be completed on time.
Ultimately, the decision whether to proceed with felony cases in St. Martin Parish lies with 16th Judicial District Attorney Bo Duhé. Law enforcement officers have not yet submitted their case files to prosecutors, Duhé said. His office is aware of the arrests, but until the case files can be parsed, he wasn't sure whether the felony charges would stick or be reduced, or if the District Attorney's Office would dismiss the counts or ask officers to collect more evidence.
Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley said he will defend the protesters for free.
"We are going to be challenging the law and the way it was used in all these arrests," he wrote in a brief statement. "These are all cases that would have been misdemeanors until August 1. We have to protect the right to dissent."
The St. Martin Parish Sheriff's Office has refused requests for details about the circumstances surrounding the past month's arrests. Incident reports do not contain deputies' narrative descriptions of what happened.
Spokeswoman Maj. Ginny Higgins said no such information was available because the cases were still under investigation.
As how deputies decided to pursue the new felony charge, Higgins responded in an email that "the law outlines the parameters necessary to arrest someone and charge them accordingly."
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Cindy Spoon was one of the L'eau Est La Vie protesters arrested Aug. 9 while in a canoe near the worksite. She accused private pipeline security of herding her onto a smaller waterway where she was grabbed and restrained by people who didn't identify themselves as law enforcement.
"I'm screaming and telling them, 'Let us go and we'll go.' … It was scary," she recalled.
The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections said about 50 of its officers had been cleared to provide private security on the pipeline. However, they've pulled out of the deal because pipeline contractors "didn't live up to their end of the agreement," spokesman Ken Pastorick said.
As commissioned officers, they're allowed to carry their service weapons and dress in uniform even when working extra duty as private security, as might be the case at a store or big event like an LSU football game, Pastorick said.
While the off-duty officers still have the power to arrest, the state had agreed that those officers would detain people but the local sheriff's office was to handle arrests on the pipeline, Pastorick said. Pipeline contractors wanted state officers to handle arrests — and they did make three arrests — but the state pulled out because the deal changed, Pastorick said.
The St. Martin Parish Sheriff's Office offered a conflicting explanation.
When asked if private security was making arrests, Higgins responded: "No, our deputies acting under the color of law conducted the arrests." She did not respond to follow-up questions that pointed out the state is listed as the arresting agency on official documents.
Pastorick said he is happy that underpaid officers have opportunities to make some extra money through private security. Pipeline opponents see impropriety when companies tearing down Louisiana trees at the same time are paying officers working private security to arrest environmentalists.
"They're treating us like terrorists in our own spaces," said L'eau Est La Vie leader Cherri Foytlin, who was arrested Tuesday.
Pipeline proponents have long countered that it is more environmentally responsible to move oil through new pipelines with modern safety features than to continue shipping it via boats, trucks or rail.
"Anti-energy activists" are the real danger, wrote Louisianians for Energy President Randy Hayden.
"While groups such as L’eau Est La Vie have been camping in the Atchafalaya Basin for months to impede construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline … tactics — like so-called 'sky pods' housing protesters suspended from trees on construction sites — are actively putting protesters in danger," Hayden wrote in a statement.
"Activists, in turn, are risking the safety of construction crews and local law enforcement officials responding to these incidents. And due to the dangers of starting and stopping construction when protesters interfere with active construction sites, they may be causing harm to the very environment they claim to protect."
Another aspect likely to be a factor moving forward is where various demonstrations and arrests have occurred.
Protesters have chained themselves to construction equipment along the pipeline route, but Foytlin and Spoon said they've recently been arrested even when on public water or private land where they have the landowners' permission.
Officers are the ones being "gruesome and gross" when they cut the safety lines for a tree-sitter and fired a stun gun at a demonstrator once on the ground, the two claimed.
But pipeline builders say the protesters are the ones putting everyone at risk.
"While we respect that there are a variety of opinions about pipeline infrastructure, we do not tolerate illegal activity on our right-of-ways, nor activities that would put our workers in danger," Daniel wrote. "The opposition has been openly causing damage and aggressively targeting our sites since the beginning of the project, and to protect our employees and our vendors, we do have security."
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