Protesters looking to use climate change as a legal defense of their actions to try to stop a natural gas pipeline expansion project through Otis State Forest in Sandisfield won’t need to bother. Charges against them, which included trespassing and disorderly conduct, were downgraded from criminal to civil infractions this week.
Now, members of the anti-pipeline Sugar Shack Alliance, which had planned to offer testimony establishing it was necessary to stop the pipeline from being built for the greater good, will have to rethink their strategy, according to group spokeswoman Vivienne Simon.
“One thing is for sure,” she said Friday. “Our actions are going to continue.”
Fred Lantz, spokesman for Berkshire County District Attorney David Capeless, said the civil charges bring a $100 fine and not the 30 days of jail time the criminal charges carried.
Charges were reduced at a hearing Thursday against most of the 24 protesters arrested earlier this month in the state forest, and the same change would take place for the remaining protesters with hearings next week, Lantz said.
“It’s a fairly common practice,” Lantz said of the downgrade of the charges. “We’ve been urged by the Legislature and the courts to implement it whenever prudent and appropriate.”
Lantz declined to comment on what led prosecutors to downgrade the charges in this case.
Sugar Shack Alliance member John Cohen, who was one of the 24 people arrested in Otis State Forest, speculated that the charges might have been downgraded because the law enforcement agencies support their cause.
“The state police who arrested us chatted with us about what we were doing, and several said they understood,” Cohen said. “It was clear some of them sympathized with what we were doing.”
Cohen, 79, of Northampton, said the downgrade in charges will make life easier for the protesters because they won’t have to go through the process of a trial, and they are now free to enter Otis State Forest again. With criminal charges, they could have been charged with a second offense, he said.
At the same time, Cohen said he and his fellow protesters consider themselves not guilty of trespassing.
“We haven’t committed a crime; what we did at Sandisfield was a political statement, an act of conscience,” he said. “It was an attempt to wake up the world to the incredible danger we’ve placed ourselves in.”
Cohen, Simon, and 16 others attempted to block tree cutters from entering an easement in Otis State Forest granted to Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company, a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan, on May 2. The site is set to be a part of the $93 million Connecticut Expansion pipeline. Later that week, six more Sugar Shack Alliance members were arrested for similar actions.
Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard Wheatley declined to comment about the arrests or the change in charges.
For Simon, the action was never about asserting First Amendment rights to protest, but rather to stop the pipeline from being built.
“It is immoral that the government or a corporation should be investing in prolonging the fossil fuel age,” she said.
Cohen described the entire process of getting natural gas to people’s homes as “a disaster of the environment.”
“We know that methane is perhaps the most destructive gas to the atmosphere and we’re allowing gas companies to expand their infrastructure enormously and release enormously greater amounts of methane into the atmosphere from the fracking and mining process and transportation,” he said. “All these gas pipelines leak.”
Simon said that prior to the downgrade in charges, her group planned to enact a “necessity defense,” a courtroom defense that establishes a defendant’s actions as necessary to prevent a greater harm. Simon used the example of trespassing on someone’s private property to prevent a child from drowning in their pool.
The situation has echoes to a case in Bristol County when two men, Jonathan “Jay” O’Hara and Ken Ward, were criminally charged with using a lobster boat — called the Henry David T. — to block a coal shipment from coming into Brayton Point power plant in Somerset in May 2013. A trial was to take place in September 2014, but charges were reduced to civil infractions.
Outside the Fall River Justice Center, where the trial was to have taken place, Bristol County District Attorney addressed a crowd of activists and called climate change “one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced.”
By that point, citing economic and environmental reasons, Brayton Point had shut down.
From Simon’s perspective, actions from her group and from individuals like O’Hara and Ward are what will help enact change.
“Our government isn’t fighting these pipelines and infrastructure,” she said. “It is down to the local communities to do this.”
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.