3 arrested can challenge Louisiana pipeline trespass law

Protesters from New Orleans and Mississippi and a journalist from New York arrested during a protest against pipeline construction may continue their challenge of a Louisiana law carrying a possible five-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of trespassing in the area of a pipeline, a federal judge has ruled.

But landowners and environmental and community groups don’t have legal standing to sue the St. Martin Parish sheriff and district attorney over the law, Judge Robert Summerhays ruled.

Activists said they had landowners’ permission to protest on the land and have described the state law as part of a larger effort against environmental activism.

The law approved in 2018 added pipelines to the list of items considered “critical infrastructure” in Louisiana and changed trespassing on such property from a misdemeanor to a felony. It was passed during protests over construction of the 162-mile (260-kilometer) Bayou Bridge oil pipeline, which was completed the following year.

The pipeline, which is connected to the Dakota Access Pipeline and owned by the same company, runs through the environmentally sensitive Atchafalaya Basin. Opponents said it would damage the basin and threaten it with oil spills, contribute to coastal land loss and hurt the health of people who live along its path.

“This law is nothing less than an effort to strong-arm Water Protectors, land owners, and concerned citizens into submission and silence us,” protester Anne White Hat of New Orleans, a member of the Lakota Nation who moved from South Dakota to Louisiana in 2010, said in a news release Thursday.

Sheriff Ronald Theriot and District Attorney Bo Duhe of the 16th Judicial District had asked Summerhays to throw out the suit. Their attorneys did not immediately respond to emails and calls requesting comment on the ruling, which was made Wednesday and entered Thursday into online court records.

White Hat, Ramon Mejia, of Biloxi, Mississippi, and freelance journalist Karen Savage of New York were arrested on land fractionally owned by three people who unsuccessfully challenged a state law letting pipeline companies expropriate land but won $10,000 each from Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC.

Those landowners and two others who joined in this lawsuit are among hundreds who own the 38-acre (15-hectare) tract where White Hat and the others were arrested. Since they live in Virginia, West Virginia and New Mexico, their strongest claim — that the law restricts their right to enjoy that land — is “wholly speculative,” the judge said.

He said the environmental and community groups don’t claim that they plan to protest in St. Martin Parish or the other two parishes in Duhe’s district.

A separate challenge, filed by people who say they were arrested because they protested in a canoe and a kayak on a waterway near the pipeline, remains in federal court in Baton Rouge.

The law “is part of a national effort to crack down on environmental activists across the U.S.,” the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents White Hat, Savage and Mejia, said in Thursday’s news release. It said the first was passed in Oklahoma in 2017, and said similar bills have been introduced 23 times in 18 states since 2017, including 14 in 2019.

“This law is extremely dangerous,” said attorney Pam Spees of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

It violates the First Amendment because it makes people more reluctant to speak out, she said.

And, she said Friday, “It is so vague it runs afoul of every requirement for criminal law to give people notice as to what they can and cannot do.”

About 125,000 miles (201,000 kilometers) of pipelines run throughout the state, she said.

“You could be standing anywhere and not know if there’s a pipeline under your feet,” she said.