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Environmental Advocates Say They Are Being Unfairly Targeted

Cheryl Gerber
Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Anne Rolfes is arrested by Baton Rouge police.

Activists in St. James Parish have been fighting the development of a giant plastic manufacturing plant there for years. They have filed lawsuits, protested at the state capitol, and committed acts of civil disobedience. Now, two of them are facing felony charges and they say they’re being targeted for their activism.

On a cold rainy morning in Baton Rouge last December, two environmental advocates opened a U-haul truck they’d hauled in from Texas.

Credit Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Anne Rolfes says plastic pellets like these were delivered to the lobbyists.

In a Facebook video, Anne Rolfes with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, stands in front of the open truck, and points to boxes and boxes of plastic waste, called “nurdles.”

“We have millions of nurdles, plastic pellets of Formosa’s pollution, from Texas, here to Louisiana,” she said.

The plastic trash is -- in fact -- evidence. It was removed by environmental advocates from waterways in Texas, after escaping from a plastic plant there run by Formosa Petrochemical. The company was fined $50 million for the damage. That same company is now in the process of building a $9.4 billion mega-plant in St. James Parish.

Rolfes held up some of the plastic waste in a ziploc bag and emphatically stated, “The message from St. James has been clear: under no circumstances will Formosa be built.”

These pellets are the building blocks for plastic manufacturing. They are used to make bottles and car seats and tupperware. But when the pellets end up in rivers, streams or lakes, they can kill sea creatures that eat them, and also leak chemicals.

As part of the day-long action to highlight plastic pollution back in December, Rolfes and another advocate, Kate McIntosh, took a few boxes of the plastic pellets and delivered them to the doorsteps of several lobbyists in Baton Rouge as a form of protest.

We just did the oil and gas lobbyists the favor of showing them what some of this evidence was by putting a crate on their doorstep,” Rolfes said in a recent interview.

Six months later, Rolfes and McIntosh were arrested and charged with felonies. Rolfes was charged with terrorizing, which can carry up to a 15-year prison sentence. McIntosh was charged with principal to terrorizing. “The irony is that on the one hand, it's perfectly fine for the petrochemical industry to dump plastic pellets and cancer-causing pollution all over the people of Louisiana,” Rolfes said. “On the other hand, they're so offended when we go and put a contained box of plastic pellets on their doorstep that they consider it terrorism.”

Credit Cheryl Gerber / Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Kate McIntosh (L) and Anne Rolfes turn themselves in after being charged with terrorism.

Rolfes sees the move as an intimidation tactic, since the arrests came months after the incident. The Baton Rouge Police Department did not say why it took so long to make the arrests, but intimated that it may have been due to a slowdown caused by COVID 19. WWNO reached out to two of the lobbyists who received the packages - neither of them wanted to talk. In an email, Tyler Gray, president of Louisiana Mid-Continent's Oil and Gas Association, said he “recognized it as a stunt,” threw the package away, and hasn’t talked with police since it happened.

The ACLU of Louisiana is condemning the felony charges. Executive director, Alanah Odems Hebert, called the arrests a threat to free speech.

“We need to take a further look at who gets charged, what crimes of violence actually are, and whether or not people who are going to jail are actually going to jail because of their political views,” she said.

Hebert said the timing of the arrests are suspicious, noting that the activists were charged right after a victory by environmental advocates to allow people onto the St. James property for Juneteenth. The plant is being built on the gravesite of enslaved people, and their descendents wanted to come onto the property to honor them. The company initially refused and was court-ordered to allow it. Within a week, McIntosh and Rolfes were arrested.

Credit Bron Moyi / Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Advocates with RISE St. James hold a ceremony to honor their ancestors buried on the site of the Formosa plastics mega-plant on Juneteenth.

“I would say unequivocally it has to be politically motivated,” said Hebert.

The activists are being represented by the New York-based nonprofit, the Center for Constitutional Rights. Pam Spees is a senior staff attorney, and said it is part of a larger pattern of intimidation by the oil and gas industry. “This thing is backfiring,” she said. “It is being seen by many people for a drastic overreach and pretty ridiculous - and that it is.”

It’s not the first time protesters have been arrested over this fight. Last fall a pastor, Gregory Manning, was arrested during a protest with the Coalition Against Death Alley. The state legislature in Louisiana has made it a felony to trespass on oil and gas property; meanwhile, legislators passed resolutions in support of doing business with Taiwan - where Formosa is based - and the state gave the company a $12 million grant.

“Anne and Kate are not cowed by this,” Spees said. “They're ready for a fight. They are very clear on what they're doing and why and the legality of it. But it is a burden to have charges like this.”

Rolfes, who has fought for years against petrochemical development and pollution in Louisiana, said she isn't afraid. “This was a distraction and unnecessary. But it happened.” If anything, she says, it’ll be fuel for the fight.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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