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.
“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.
“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, 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.”
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.”