On a cool, sunny afternoon last December, Gail Leboeuf thrust her right hand high in the air and sang the opening line to a gospel hymn with such force her microphone growled with distortion.
As she belted “Oh, freedom! Oh, freedom!” she was risking her own.
Leboeuf, a gray-haired woman in her late 60s, was among more than a dozen gathered on a dirt road amid an expansive sugarcane field in St. James Parish, an hour’s drive west of New Orleans, that Thursday to protest the construction of a 2,300-acre, $9.4 billion petrochemical complex that would double toxic emissions in a region already known as “Cancer Alley.” The public health concern was compounded by the desecration of what she declared that day to be “hallowed ground.”
Her ancestors ― enslaved Black workers ― were buried in unmarked graves not far from where she stood. For generations, they tilled and scythed, suffered and died to enrich a local plantation owner and the commodities traders up north. Even death couldn’t stop the indignities. A petrochemical company had already dug one pipeline through the cemetery a decade ago.
“These are our loved ones who are responsible for this great nation having free labor to build itself,” she said, according to a video streamed live on Facebook by RISE St. James, a local faith-based nonprofit opposing the plastics plant. “It’s time they get their due.”
Leboeuf wasn’t charged with a crime. She could have been. Under a state law enacted two years ago, even gathering near the underground pipeline without permission could have landed her up to five years in prison and $1,000 in fines.
Now a new bill hastily making its way through the Louisiana State Legislature would dramatically increase those penalties for trespassing on fossil fuel sites during a state of emergency, setting a mandatory minimum of three years in prison “at hard labor” and a maximum of 15 years, and up to $5,000 in fines.
“This is just going back to slavery,” Sharon Lavigne, the founder of RISE St. James, said by phone Friday evening. “These are some dirty dogs. Dirty, dirty dogs.”
In August 2018, Louisiana became one of the first states to designate virtually all oil refineries and gas pipelines as “critical infrastructure,” threatening protesters who gather near any of its 125,000 miles of oil and gas conduits ― previously a misdemeanor ― with felony charges.
Last Friday, the state House of Representatives approved the new legislation adding penalties for trespassing during a state emergency ― like the order Louisiana is under now in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic ― by a vote of 88 to 8. It passed 31-to-0 in the state Senate on Friday.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) ”will review the bill and make a final decision on if he will sign it soon,” spokeswoman Christina Stephens said by email late Friday.
The measure would also expand the definition of critical infrastructure to include floodgates, levees and pump stations, essentially applying the law across much of the low-lying coastal state.
“We may be in states of emergency at various levels for the next two years due to COVID-19,” said Pam Spees, the senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who is representing RISE St. James in a lawsuit challenging the existing pipeline law. “What’s happening is they’re being chilled from exercising their rights.”
In approving the new law, Louisiana would become the fourth state to enact draconian new restrictions on protesting fossil fuel infrastructure since the pandemic began, according to Connor Gibson, a researcher at Greenpeace who tracks critical infrastructure legislation.
In March, Kentucky, South Dakota and West Virginia quietly approved measures to increase the penalties for protesting on fossil fuel companies’ property or broadening the definition of “critical infrastructure.” Alabama earlier this month advanced its own version of the bill.
The legislation is based on proposals the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — the conservative policy shop funded by big business and right-wing billionaires — began promoting in 2017 in response to the campaign to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline under a water source held sacred by Native Americans.
Militarized police and private security forces brutalized environmentalists and indigenous activists who camped out at the site of the proposed oil pipeline, injuring at least 300 unarmed protesters in one day, including one woman who nearly lost her arm. The heavily armed security forces reported no such injuries.
That didn’t stop proponents of the ALEC bill from citing the risk of violent protest anyway. In a December 2017 letter urging state legislators to champion the proposal, five energy trade groups and a big oil company listed six examples of threats environmentalists posed to so-called critical infrastructure.
This is just going back to slavery. These are some dirty dogs. Dirty, dirty dogs. Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James
Only one example actually involved environmentalists. During the Dakota Access fight, activists clipped the locks on fenced-in portions of a connected oil pipeline and turned the valves closed, briefly cutting off the flow of oil to refineries. The demonstrators were arrested and charged under existing laws. The other five examples had nothing to do with environmental concerns. Rather, mental illness or workplace grievance loosely bound the perpetrators of those incidents, and at least two cases led to convictions under current statutes.
But state lawmakers bought the pitch. By last summer, the bill became law in at least six states: Indiana, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas. Similar bills are pending in Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The new bill in Louisiana illustrates how legislation originally meant to protect pipelines benefits plastic and chemical manufacturing, one of the fastest-growing sectors of the fossil fuel industry. The pipeline that runs under the slave burial ground is not part of the 14-factory complex Taiwanese petrochemical giant Formosa Plastics Corp. proposed building. But the pipeline’s existence offers a legal cudgel to pressure Lavigne and her activist group to back off.
Campaign filings show the company has not donated to state Rep. Jerome Zeringue, the Republican who sponsored the bill, an analysis by Gibson found. But Jim Harris, the only lobbyist in Louisiana registered with Formosa this year, represents oil giants Marathon Petroleum, Koch Industries and Valero, all of which lobbied in support of anti-protest bills in other states. The oil, gas and petrochemical companies contributed $16,566 to Zeringue over the past two years, especially in 2019, the year after he helped pass the original bill.
Neither Harris nor Zeringue responded to requests for comment on Friday.
Last month, Formosa’s Louisiana subsidiary sent a letter to Lavigne denying her access to the cemetery on the grounds that “no archeologist has been able to make any affirmative conclusion about the identity or ethnicity of the remains” discovered on the property, according to a copy of the letter HuffPost reviewed.
“That’s a bunch of bull,” Lavigne said. “We can’t prove it? They can’t prove it’s not our ancestors. They’re just coldhearted people.”
In a statement, Formosa said it “will continue to work with the appropriate agencies... to conduct research on the property to learn more about the identities of the deceased persons and respectfully preserve the remains.”
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