Vowing to be heard in court, pipeline protesters disappointed in judge’s leniency

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By Friday, May 12 News  12 Comments
Terry Cowgill
The protesters who were arrested for blocking access to the fracked gas pipeline through Otis State Forest were disappointed in the Judge Paul Vrabel's acceptance of a motion to convert their criminal charges to civil.

Great Barrington — A group of pipeline protesters arrested earlier this month by State Police in the Otis State Forest showed up for arraignment at Southern Berkshire District Court Thursday morning (May 11) only to find their fate won’t be known until June 20.

Judge Paul Vrabel entertained a motion from prosecutors to convert charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct from criminal to civil. He ordered the protesters to return on June 20 for a civil responsibility hearing. Eighteen arrests were made May 2, with six more arrested Saturday afternoon (May 6).

After learning their presence in the courtroom was no longer required, the 17 protesters took the steps of the courthouse for a media event. Many were wearing signs proclaiming their intention to plead not guilty to the charges.

The protesters, most of whom are members of the nonprofit Sugar Shack Alliance, have denied trespassing in the Otis State Forest in Sandisfield, where workers for Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company have been using heavy equipment for tree cutting in preparation for the construction of a controversial pipeline extension to Connecticut.

Many were holding signs proclaiming them “not guilty” of trespassing because, the logic goes, they were holding their ground on public land protected by Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution, which says “the people shall have a right to clean air and water … and the natural scenic, historic, and esthetic qualities of their environment,” with the fulfillment of these rights to be carried out through state parkland acquisition and conservation.

One of those arrested, Elizabeth Caretti Ramirez of Holyoke told The Edge she had also attended a protest last year at Standing Rock, a Native American reservation in North Dakota, where there were large protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“I felt very compelled by that experience to stop new fossil fuel infrastructure,” Caretti Ramirez said.

Christopher Sabo, Vivienne Simon and Sue Baxter of the Sugar Shack Alliance. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Christopher Sabo, Vivienne Simon and Sue Baxter of the Sugar Shack Alliance. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“I have been grappling with the question for along time, which is how do I answer to my children when they ask me ‘what did you do in 2017?’,” observed Christopher Sabo, an arrestee from Ashfield. “I don’t want to be complicit in a system that values profit at the expense of a healthy, safe and clean environment.”

“We were caught off guard today,” said Vivienne Simon of the Sugar Shack Alliance and one of 17 arrested and charged. “We came in here to plead not guilty because we believe that the actions that are going on are both immoral on the part of the fossil fuel industry, and illegal.”

Susan Baxter, whose land abuts the company’s the easement and who has been exercising her own personal resistance to the pipeline since early this month, went through the history of the project and complained of the slowness of federal authorities to respond to appeals from environmental groups, along with the indifference of the state.

Sue Baxter, whose property abuts the easement, shares a light moment with New England Public Radio reporter Adam Frenier. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Sue Baxter, whose property abuts the easement, shares a light moment with New England Public Radio reporter Adam Frenier. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“FERC is still considering our appeal,” said Baxter, whose home lies only 270 feet from the easement. “They’ve had it for months. We literally can do nothing except stand up for our rights at this point.”

The pipeline extension project of Kinder Morgan, parent company of Tennessee Pipeline, has been mired in legal entanglements. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the project and gave the go-ahead for tree clearing and construction on April 12. Dubbed the Connecticut Expansion Project, the operation would extend the company’s existing natural gas pipeline infrastructure across three states – New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts – and see four miles of new underground pipeline.

But expanding the existing pipeline corridor in the Otis State Forest requires clearing of dozens of acres of forest now owned by the state, which purchased it for conservation and put it into protection under the Department of Conservation Resources (DCR) and the state constitution.

U.S. Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, along with Congressman Richard Neal have also asked FERC to revoke the notice to proceed it gave Kinder Morgan.

Jean Atwater-Williams (center), a founding member of Sandisfield Taxpayers Opposing the Pipeline (STOP), says there is no need for the pipeline extension.

Jean Atwater-Williams (center), a founding member of Sandisfield Taxpayers Opposing the Pipeline (STOP), says there is no need for the pipeline extension. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Jean Atwater-Williams, a founding member of Sandisfield Taxpayers Opposing the Pipeline (STOP) explained that she doesn’t think there’s any need or demand for the pipeline because it was conceived to bring natural gas into Connecticut on the premise that thousands of homeowners and businesses would convert to natural gas from heating oil, but “those projections have not happened,” Atwater-Williams said.

“We don’t believe there is need,” Atwater-Williams continued. “And that is the number-one criterion that FERC uses to determine whether or not a project can go forward.”

Simon said Vrabel’s decision to convert the charges from criminal to civil “turns the charges basically into a parking ticket.”

“This is obviously their fear of a trial,” Simon said. “We want our day in court to talk about both the immorality and illegality of what’s going on … we want a trial.”

Ashfield Selectman Ron Coler, right, leaves no doubt where stands on his own guilt or innocence. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Ashfield Selectman Ron Coler, right, leaves no doubt where stands on his own guilt or innocence. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Simon said the group’s intention is “absolutely” to push for criminal charges to be filed because “we want our day in court but we also want to talk about the necessity of seriously addressing climate action.”

Asked what the morale of the group was and if they felt deterred at all, the protesters erupted in cheers and applause. Simon said the group would check with its lawyer on the best strategy for the protesters to be heard in court.

As for the FERC notice to proceed, Atwater-Williams said her group would press onward.

“We are pushing to have our appeal heard and are considering other legal actions, — perhaps injunctive relief,” she said. “We believe there is merit to our case.”


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12 Comments   Add Comment

  1. RAC says:

    NOT GUILTY
    (by reason of insanity)

  2. Patrick Fennell says:

    The protesters should be demonstrating in front of Richie Neal’s office since he is taking pipeline money as well as any other pol who does. Oops the protesters voted for those guys.

  3. John says:

    All clean and dressed up in their Sunday best for court. Nice! The reality seems to be forgotten that they all obviously took nice warm showers for their court date. So, folks, how was that nice warm shower heated? Did you run outside and start your campfire to heat 15 gallons of water? Now maybe you use solar panels to extract a little energy. How many milliamps did you extract from that panel and how many days will it take to heat up that shower?
    Or, maybe everybody took cold showers that day.(and where did that energy come from to pump the water?)
    Oh my

  4. Chris says:

    I support these brave citizens. And they’re right – they were on public land, so how can they be trespassing? The article shows that the “checks and balances” our government is supposed to provide in matters such as the decision to develop public conservation land – land that is legally protected (supposedly) from development by state law – were barely nodded at let alone followed here, all for the sake of some companies’ profits. This sets a bad precedent. Even if preserving Otis State Forest isn’t important to you, wait until a corporation wants to build something through your land or something that matters to you. You’d want due process to be followed. You’d want a voice.

    In addition, while the US is so focused on building infrastructure for fossil fuels (while the demand for them wanes), it’s in danger of being left behind in a global economy that’s quickly moving toward cleaner, more sustainable energy sources. It’s like investing in horses and buggies at the dawn of the automobile. Just because one technology has been dominant doesn’t mean it will continue that way. We should read the writing on the wall and make smart investments in renewable energy – and not sell out our health and public resources by clinging to the old way of doing things.

    1. John says:

      I have had far more intrusion with governments wanting to take my property than any company. Over and over the government land grabs just keep getting bigger.
      Frankly, being disappointed that there are not criminal charges being pressed, is simply crazy.

      1. Chris says:

        Well, courts are increasingly allowing companies to use eminent domain to take private property to build pipelines, so watch out.

    1. John says:

      Chris
      There is a very big difference between taking someone’s land, and paying someone a fantastic amount of money for an easement below ground…
      The government is more apt to steal your land. I have had it happen 2 separate times and on the verge of a 3rd.
      Yes the United States is turning away from imported energy. This is very good for all.

      1. Bob Fedell says:

        They may have paid a high dollar value per acre, but that’s a one time small payment that doesn’t replace what’s happening to their property value, or assurance that it won’t happen again when Kinder Morgan decides to add a 4th line to the mix…

  5. Zoe Barnes says:

    The first round of protester’s average age was higher than the age of the trees they claim they are protecting. The land was a cleared working farm into the 1970’s. The DCR bought the land and let it grow wild, but there is not and never was an old growth on this working farm. No indians claimed any history for the hundred years the farm was plowed and planted, but as soon as a deep pockets company showed up, so did the fake ceremonial stones. So for a year or so these protesters have to deal with the construction for a company to bring lower cost energy to the Northeast. Why do they not want seniors and children to have warmth for a lower cost? Why?

    1. Bob Fedell says:

      You are only slightly correct. There is an area of the forest that used to be a farm, and that land is not old growth forest, but the Otis State forest is almost 3,000 acres, which wasn’t all part of that farm. They are cutting trees that are definitely old growth, but I do agree with you regarding the Indian grounds.

      Most of our power is sourced from local generating plants in Albany, Pittsfield, and Springfield, and multiple solar fields that have been established. There is absolutely no evidence that supports that our energy rates will be affected in either way by this pipeline.

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