SANDISFIELD, Mass. ― When Karla Colon-Aponte arrived at the Otis State Forest on the morning of Oct. 25, she intended to join her fellow protesters praying beside energy giant Kinder Morgan’s Connecticut Expansion Project line, a four-mile-long natural gas pipeline that runs in a loop through the town of Sandisfield in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts.
The Connecticut Expansion Project has been the focus of sustained activist resistance in this sleepy rural community ever since Kinder Morgan began work at the site in late April. The pipeline, which went into operation last month, links natural gas infrastructure in Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. The portion of the project in Sandisfield cuts through Berkshire wilderness, across old-growth forest and alongside waterways, which pipeline critics say could potentially damage the natural resources in the state forest.
Colon-Aponte, 22, is Taina, the indigenous people of Puerto Rico, and is part of a group known as the “water protectors,” who have traveled the country protesting energy infrastructure projects, using nonviolent resistance tactics to stop projects that they see as endangering water resources.
The Massachusetts State Police, expecting trouble from the protesters, were already on site in force when Colon-Aponte arrived at the pipeline. The two sides converged on a dirt road as tensions began to rise with the early morning mist. It started as a faceoff between the protesters and the cops, but quickly escalated. As the police closed in, Colon-Aponte tried to move away from the front line.
After she turned her back, an officer shoved her repeatedly, Colon-Aponte said ― at least “four or five times.” When Colon-Aponte raised her arms in submission and turned around to ask the officer to stop, she said, her hand grazed his — which provided an opening for him to arrest her for assaulting a police officer.
Colon-Aponte was charged with assault and battery on a police officer, “after she allegedly pushed a trooper who was trying to clear protesters off a road they were blocking,” Massachusetts State Police Director of Media Communications David Procopio said in an email. She was one of five people arrested that day, and one of the more than 100 who have been arrested protesting at the pipeline this year. She now faces up to two and half years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
Colon-Aponte said the police reaction to the protests, which have been peaceful and nonviolent, has been disproportionate. “We’re not bad guys,” said Colon-Aponte. “We’re just people who intend to protect Mother Earth.”
But pipeline protesters think there’s a reason the reaction from state police officers has been so strong. According to records anti-pipeline protesters recently obtained through a public records request, Kinder Morgan has been reimbursing state police officers from nearby Troop B headquarters in Northampton for their many hours on site. Through October, the total reimbursement has been $957,682.15, according to Cathy Kristofferson, a member of the Massachusetts Pipeline Awareness Network.
Kristofferson made the public records request in response to concerns over the potential effects the payments were having on law enforcement behavior at the site.
It’s not the first time an energy giant has paid police to keep watch over its assets. In Pennsylvania, Kinder Morgan hired off-duty police officers as a “deterrent” at a pipeline in 2013. And at the height of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests last year, Energy Transfer Partners offered to defray some of North Dakota’s costs for patrolling the area. The developer transferred some $15 million into state coffers as a result of patrols on the Dakota Access line at the end of September.
The cost of protecting energy infrastructure is high, no matter who takes care of it. Taxpayers would be understandably loathe to cover the costs of officers patrolling private property. But Kinder Morgan footing the bill for state police protecting this one four-mile loop of pipeline has the local activist community questioning how fair the officers on site can be to protesters when some of their income comes, albeit indirectly, from the pipeline’s operator.
Abby Ferla, a farmer in the western Massachusetts town of Ashfield, is the media committee coordinator for the Sugar Shack Alliance, which represents a coalition of anti-pipeline groups across the commonwealth.
“We are committed to nonviolent direct action resisting the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure,” said Ferla. The alliance’s actions have included nonviolent resistance to the Kinder Morgan pipeline in Sandisfield and appeals to the governor to address climate change more aggressively. The alliance seeks to raise awareness about the proliferation of energy projects in the region and nation, said Ferla. “The projects are not appropriate in the context of climate change,” she said. “There are safer and more sustainable options.”
State Sen. Adam Hinds, a Democrat from the nearby city of Pittsfield, agreed. “We’ve been deeply disappointed that the project has gone through in the first place,” he said.
Hinds also has concerns about how the state police have treated protesters at the site. His office was informed that the police are conducting an internal investigation on the Colon-Aponte arrest, Hinds said, and will have a report soon.
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren has also expressed dismay about how protests have been handled. “The concerns of local communities are being ignored,” she said in a statement provided to HuffPost. Warren said she believes the police should act with restraint and respect that there are two sides to the issue. And, she said, the company behind the pipeline should not stop citizens from exercising their rights.
“Kinder Morgan should not interfere with peaceful protests,” said Warren.
Concerns related to the pipeline construction extend beyond the rights of protesters. Local roads in this rural area, not used to the volume of industrial traffic, are crumbling. Kinder Morgan “needs to step up and repair damaged roads and areas that it has harmed,” said Warren.
The company has indicated that it may help repair some of the damage, but stopped short of a full commitment to the work. So far, Kinder Morgan’s payments for law enforcement seem to be outpacing any money the company has spent on repairs.
The documents Kristofferson obtained show that state police officers were paid overtime rates for the Kinder Morgan work, rather than the salaries they would get for covering their regular detail. Procopio told HuffPost that overtime pay varies by officer, “calculated in accordance with base salary established by rank.”
Procopio said that billing the duties as overtime makes more sense given the nature of the work. Protecting the pipeline involves a greater scope of policing, he said. “Work is generally categorized as overtime when we provide a large-scale, full-service policing response,” he added.
A Kinder Morgan spokesperson declined to comment on the payments, telling HuffPost that the company does not discuss police or security matters related to its pipelines.
Arrests at the pipeline site have continued even after the pipeline went into operation last month. State police used a stun gun on a Sharon, Conn., man named Jacob Renner at a Nov. 1 protest.
Protesters worry Kinder Morgan’s money is influencing police priorities. “I wonder if they’re able to maintain neutrality when [working] off of the Kinder Morgan payroll,” Ferla told HuffPost. “When they’re patrolling the protest, they’re on duty as police officers — it’s opaque as to when they’re paid by Kinder Morgan and when they’re not.”
Priscilla Lynch, a member of the Sugar Shack Alliance and the Massachusetts chapter of Code Pink, was also arrested at the Nov. 1 protest. The police have maintained a presence at the pipeline site “24/7” since last April, Lynch said ― unusually large, in her view, for small, non-violent actions like blocking traffic. Others in the state worry that the police resources there have pulled officers off the street and away from other duties.
Procopio told HuffPost that the state police has treated the pipeline detail in the same way it treats the Boston Marathon and other large events and protests. The police are expected to protect the security and safety of property and people. “In those events, the scope of the mission is not simply traffic or crowd control,” said Procopio.
Kristofferson argues that if a large corporation is funding the police, they should be upfront about it. “I don’t care if they want to get side jobs,” Kristofferson said. “But they should do it in Kinder Morgan shirts and gear, not with cruisers and weaponry purchased by the commonwealth.”
Now that the pipeline is in operation, the alliance is figuring out how much protest presence to maintain at the site, Ferla said. When a HuffPost reporter arrived there on Nov. 28, there were no protesters, but their presence was still felt in the signage they had left behind, with messages like “guilty.”
Ferla hopes past and future protests at the site will, at the very least, start a conversation about the country’s dependence on fossil fuels.
“One of our goals in resistance is to bring attention to fossil fuel projects,” said Ferla. “They’re not necessary, we don’t need them.”
Eoin Higgins is on assignment for HuffPost.
This article has been updated with the latest figures on reimbursement to local law enforcement.