The Atchafalaya Basin is the nation’s largest river swamp and home to some of the most pristine wetlands in Louisiana, so the frontlines of the fight to stop construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline are only accessible by water. The sun is beginning to set when a group of Water Protectors pick me up in a small boat and bring me into the basin. Egrets and great blue herons take flight as we glide down the bayou. A bright-eyed fisher waves us down along the way, pulling up beside us to trade a sack of crawfish for some ice from our cooler.
The basin’s iconic groves of bald cypress trees are lush this time of year, but the thick foliage is suddenly interrupted as we approach a pipeline construction site, where large machines used to remove trees sit alongside two fan boats on what is otherwise an empty pile of dirt. This is where the Texas-based oil company Energy Transfer Partners is building the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, a 167-mile controversy that bisects much of Louisiana and faces fierce opposition from environmentalists and Indigenous activists.
Land a boat on that pipeline easement, and you could be charged with a felony. On August 1, a new state law targeting anti-pipeline protesters went into effect in Louisiana. The law declares pipelines to be “critical infrastructure” along with water treatment plants and the power grid and makes trespassing on pipeline construction sites a serious crime. “Disrupting” a pipeline’s “operations” could land you in prison for up to 20 years. The law is clearly aimed at the Water Protectors in Louisiana, who routinely bring construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline to a temporary halt with colorful — and peaceful — acts of civil disobedience.
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Right now, activists are opposing new fossil fuel infrastructure projects like Bayou Bridge across the US. Some are inspired by the urgency of climate disruption and the Indigenous-led movement at Standing Rock; others are local residents concerned that a new pipeline, refinery or gas plant would bring pollution to their neighborhoods. In some cases, residents are forced to allow pipeline construction on their own property against their wishes. The fossil fuel industry has responded in kind, working directly with the police state to intimidate protesters and quash dissent.
Kayakers Face Felony Charges
Not long after Louisiana’s anti-protest law went into effect, activists say three Water Protectors in the Atchafalaya Basin were “snatched” from their kayaks by private security guards working for Energy Transfer Partners, who held the activists on a pipeline easement until police arrived and arrested them. They became the first defendants charged with felonies under the anti-protest law, even though they claim to have been boating in a public waterway without breaking any laws. In Louisiana, navigable waterways are considered public spaces, so it’s unclear if the charges will stick.
Cindy Spoon, one of the three activists charged under the anti-protest law, told Truthout that her “wrongful arrest” is proof that the law’s true intention is to intimidate people who are critical of the fossil fuel industry.
“I was in no way trespassing or damaging ‘critical’ infrastructure, but private security was so eager to grab me and send a message to the rest of the campaign that protesting is now considered a felony,” Spoon said in an interview.
As The Intercept recently pointed out, Louisiana’s anti-protest law is similar to a model bill aimed at criminalizing protest against oil and gas infrastructure crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that writes model legislation for right-wing lawmakers. ALEC introduced the model bill after mass resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock made international headlines. That similar legislation appeared in Louisiana is no surprise. The Bayou Bridge Pipeline is the southern leg of an Energy Transfer Partners pipeline system stretching from the Gulf Coast to the vast fracking fields of North Dakota.
A Grandmother Goes to Jail
Energy Transfer Partners is also facing opposition in Pennsylvania, where the company is working with Sunoco to build the Mariner East 2 Pipeline for carrying liquid natural gas. Ellen Sue Gerhart, a grandmother and retired teacher, is currently serving two to six months in jail for butting heads with the pipeline companies, according to a press release from her supporters. Mariner East 2 is routed through Gerhart’s property, but she and her family are leading opponents of the pipeline. Along with three friends and family members, Gerhart was arrested while protesters occupied a tree-sit on her own property to block pipeline construction back in 2016.
The charges against Gerhart were later dropped, and the Gerhart family sued Energy Transfer Partners for violating their rights. Legal battles continue, but the pipeline companies were able to win the right to build on Gerhart’s property in court. Soon, Gerhart’s property was filled with construction equipment and private security forces. On August 3, a local judge sentenced the 63-year-old activist to two to six months in jail after the pipeline companies accused her of baiting a bear onto her wooded, 27-acre property.
Gerhart’s daughter, Elise Gerhart, told Truthout that she has seen many black bears on her mother’s rural property through the years. Still, her mother was thrown in jail after pipeline employees videotaped a bear in their construction zone and showed it to a local court. She said that the evidence and the charges are bogus.
“How can you charge someone for wildlife being present there when the wildlife has been there since before we were?” Gerhart said in an interview.
Rich Raiders, an attorney for the Gerharts, said that laws in Pennsylvania stack the cards in favor of wealthy pipeline companies, making it very difficult for working families to protect their property from being seized by powerful corporations under eminent domain. State regulators provide few avenues for relief.
“People feel helpless and there is nowhere for them to go,” Raiders said in an interview.
In an interview before her arrest, Gerhart said she decided to make her own stand against the pipeline because government officials failed to protect her land and family.
“Our right to peacefully object to an unjust and dangerous pipeline should be protected over the profit margin of these foreign corporations,” Gerhart said.
Back in the Atchafalaya Basin, Water Protectors are continuing to protest the Bayou Bridge Pipeline despite the felony charges brought against the three kayakers. The pipeline is scheduled to be completed before the end of the year, and with the anti-protest law on the books, the activists are devising new strategies for protesting. Luckily, they have found allies in private landowners who, like the Gerharts, have been forced to allow pipeline construction on their property.
After traveling for miles by boat, I follow a small group of Water Protectors into a muddy, wooded area. About a mile in, we find the pipeline easement — an area cleared of trees, with a mound of dirt about 15 to 20 feet high and extending in each direction. I decide to take a closer look. It would be fairly easy to scramble up the pile of dirt and reach the other side, but doing so would technically make me a “criminal” under Louisiana law. I look back into the lush forest and see an array of bald cypress knees poking up from the moist earth. They are the only ones watching.
Correction: This article originally stated that Ellen Sue Gerhart was arrested for trespassing while occupying a tree-sit on her own property in 2016. Gerhart was not one of the protesters in the tree-sit and was not charged with trespassing. Instead, she was arresting for disorderly conduct and other charges while trying to warn police that a tree-clearing crew was putting the occupants of the tree-sit in danger. The charges were dropped.