BATON ROUGE, La. (CN) – Protesters and Louisiana residents whose land is crisscrossed by oil and gas pipelines filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday challenging a state law that makes it a felony to be on a pipeline, even an unmarked, buried one.
According to the 37-page federal complaint filed in Baton Rouge by attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Loyola University College of Law, the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association wrote legislation last year amending the state’s critical infrastructure law that was ultimately passed by Legislature.
The lawsuit says the approved amendment “is so vague, overly broad, and sweeping in scope that people in the state cannot be sure of where in the vicinity of Louisiana’s vast 125,000-mile network of pipelines they can legally be present, who decides where they can be present, or what conduct is prohibited that can subject them to up to five years in prison, with or without hard labor.”
Before the bill was passed, the landowners, protesters and a journalist filing the lawsuit claim critical infrastructure only included enclosed facilities like refineries and chemical manufacturing and water treatment plants.
Now the law also protects “the vast network of 125,000 miles of pipelines running through Louisiana, the overwhelming majority of which is not visible or clearly marked,” the complaint states.
“Landowners with pipelines running through their properties, pedestrians walking along public roads, sidewalks, or other public spaces that may have pipelines running underneath, recreational boaters and commercial vessels in waters through which pipelines may run, now cannot be sure of where they can lawfully remain present,” the lawsuit states.
Since the law took effect last August, 15 protesters have been arrested.
Two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including lead plaintiff Anne White Hat, are protesters currently facing felony jail time. White Hat could be sentenced to as many as 10 years in prison for what she described during a Wednesday press conference as walking up an incline and back down on private property she’d been invited onto.
“We know that this is the industry’s response to protests at Standing Rock, and it is part of a national trend to punish protestors,” Pamela Spees, an attorney from the Center for Constitutional Rights, said during the press conference outside the federal courthouse in Baton Rouge after the lawsuit was filed.
Spees said the arrests happened last fall while protesters were on private property in the Atchafalaya Basin protesting Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC’s entry onto that land in order to bury a pipeline.
“We actually had a ruling in the fall where the court agreed and found Bayou Bridge Pipeline guilty of trespassing… and it was trespassing on the property where the protesters were arrested at the time that they were being arrested,” Spees said.
The attorney added that the pipeline company “made a blatant, flagrant decision to trespass and go onto this property and construct this pipeline, without the authorization of the landowners – and their representative said at trial that they did it because it would be cheaper to do that than to follow the law.”
Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in New Orleans, an environmental health organization that is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said during Wednesday’s press conference that “it’s certainly ironic that this company that itself does not follow the law would pass a law to subvert protests.”
Rolfes said the oil and gas industry isn’t as powerful as it likes to appear or it wouldn’t need to craft such legislation.
She said the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association didn’t try to hide the fact that it wrote the amendment to the critical infrastructure law.
“And what are they doing this legislative session? They are writing more laws. This time it’s the pollution secrecy act in which they don’t want big polluters – or even small polluters – to have to report what their emissions are. And what is the oil industry saying? They’re saying, ‘Oh, it’s so that they don’t feel pressure so that they can give the true picture of pollution,’” Rolfes said. “We all know that’s not true. They are entering this legislation so they can let moneyed interests have their way with our state.”
She continued, “Actually, the oil and gas industry is in a very weak position. When you have to create laws to hide your tracks about pollution, when you have to create laws to prevent a public outcry, you are in trouble.”
The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association said in a statement Wednesday that the critical infrastructure protection is necessary.
“This important law protects Louisiana and its citizens from individuals who attempt to unlawfully interrupt construction of pipeline projects or damage existing facilities, which not only puts the trespassers at risk, but also risks the lives of first responders, employees, and the surrounding communities and environment,” the group said. “Louisiana’s natural gas and oil industry plays a critical role in fueling America with reliable and affordable energy and damage to our critical infrastructure risks interrupting critical services across the United States.”
A hearing on the request for an injunction had not yet been scheduled as of Wednesday.