Environmental Activists Decry Felony Arrests as Intimidation

Environmentalists were charged with terrorizing for leaving a box of plastic pellets and a protest note on the doorstep of an oil lobbyist in Louisiana.

Ann Rolfes, second from left, protests Formosa Plastics outside Louisiana’s 23rd Judicial District courthouse on June 18, seeking entrance to an old slave cemetery for a Juneteenth observance. Her attorney Pam Spees is to her left. (Courthouse News photo/Sabrina Canfield)

BATON ROUGE (CN) — Two environmental activists with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade bonded out of jail Thursday evening after being arrested on felony terrorizing charges that stem from a December incident in which they left a sealed box containing plastic pellets on the doorstep of an oil and gas lobbyist.

Anne Rolfes, founder of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Kate McIntosh were identified from video footage taken from the doorstep of Tyler Gray, president and general counsel for Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. The video showed three people running to a rental car after dropping something on the porch, according to the affidavit of arrest. 

Inside the plastic filebox they left on Gray’s doorstep were nurdles — small, white, BB-sized pellets used for manufacturing plastics. Nurdles are toxic. They can poison fish and other wildlife. The nurdles in the box were collected from the waters around Formosa Plastics’ Lavaca Bay, Texas plastic manufacturing plant.

Last October, Formosa settled with the state of Texas for $50 million for dumping millions of nurdles into the water around its refinery.

Rolfes and McIntosh also left boxes filled with nurdles on the doorsteps of other oil and gas lobbyists and the doorstep of Formosa executives, to call attention to plastic pollution, their organization said.

Affixed to the boxes were notes that said the pellets should not be removed from their packaging, left around children or pets, and should be responsibly recycled.

“These are just some of the billions of nurdles that Formosa Plastics dumped into the coastal waters of the state of Texas,” the note said, according to a copy provided to The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate newspaper. “These were used as evidence in a landmark lawsuit filed against Formosa under the Clean Water Act.”

The incident happened Dec. 11. The affidavit for arrest is dated April 16, and the two were notified of the warrant for their arrest through their attorney last Friday, Juneteenth, on their way to a contested event on Formosa’s property.

Oilfield and plastics plants sit in Louisiana’s cancer alley on old plantation lands once worked by slaves, who are buried there. (Courthouse News photo/Sabrina Canfield)

The timeline is significant, according to Pam Spees, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights who represents the women. The day before, Formosa lost its request to a state judge to prevent members of the community from going onto its property for an hourlong prayer ceremony at a slave burial ground in commemoration of Juneteenth.

Formosa has said it plans to remove all slave burial grounds from its site before it builds its plastic manufacturing complex.

State Judge Emile R. St. Pierre affirmed from the bench of the 23rd Judicial District courthouse the day before Juneteeth his previous decision to allow community members to enter Formosa’s property for a prayer ceremony.

“This is empty land. These rights are sacred, and we need healing,” St. Pierre said. “We should have some good citizenry from our corporate neighbors.”

But on the drive to the Juneteenth celebration, Bill Quigley, a Loyola University New Orleans law professor and colleague of Spees, received a phone call. It was a Baton Rouge homicide detective calling to alert him that a warrant for arrest had been issued for Rolfes and McIntosh stemming from the Dec. 11 incident.

The boxes were delivered to doorsteps a day after “Nurdlefest 2019,” staged by the Bucket Brigade and others to raise awareness of plastic pollution on the eve of a decision by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality over whether to grant Formosa Plastics, a multibillion-dollar Taiwanese-owned corporation, an air-quality permit to operate the proposed massive plastic-manufacturing complex in St. James Parish in a mostly black, rural community. The permit has been granted.

Ten years before the lawsuit over nurdles, the EPA fined Formosa $13 million for air- and water-quality violations. The company paid the fine but did not complete the pollution reductions it was supposed to make at its operations in Louisiana and Texas, according to the Texas Observer, and for which it had to pay another $1.5 million a few years later. 

After the box of nurdles was found on Gray’s doorstep, “Hazmat was called and responded to the scene and it was discovered the package contained trash and plastic,” according to the affidavit supporting the warrant, signed by Detective Logan Collins on April 16.

The affidavit said video footage from a doorbell camera showed three people placing the package at the front door and running away to a rental car that was subsequently traced to Rolfes in New Orleans.

“It was obvious that by indicating the contents of the container were hazardous that the individuals were attempting to cause the homeowners to be in fear for their safety to intimidate the homeowners,” the affidavit states.

The arrest warrant, signed by 19th Judicial District Judge Anthony Marabella, said the note triggered the charges for terrorizing.

The two women were charged with felony terrorizing under Louisiana statute 14:40.1, which defines terrorizing as intentionally making it appear as if violence is imminent or that circumstances are dangerous to human life with the intention of causing fear or the evacuation of a building or other serious disruption to the public. The charges are punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Gray told Picayune/Advocate that his wife filed a police report about the box while he was out of town.

Jim Harris, a spokesman for Formosa Plastics, told the newspaper that he “quickly figured out what the stunt was about” when he also received a box of plastic pellets on his doorstep, and that he did not call the police.

Greg Bowser, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, also confirmed to the Picayune/Advocate that he received a box of plastic pellets at his house.

Spees, who represents the women, said Thursday that the charges have “zero legal merit.”

“They do not even pass the laugh test,” Spees said. “We ask the district attorney to look carefully at these arrests and reject the charges against these two dedicated advocates as soon as possible.”

Don Coppola, a Baton Rouge police spokesman, said police waited so long to arrest Rolfes and McIntosh because detectives wanted to “respect the investigative process,” and also that Covid-19 had slowed things down.

Formosa Plastics did not reply to an emailed request for comment.

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