GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — Sixteen of the 24 protesters arrested fighting a natural gas pipeline being built on state forest land in Sandisfield showed up in court Thursday morning ready to proudly say they are not criminals.
The state agreed their actions didn't warrant criminal charges and entered a motion to convert those charges to civil citations. Those who were arrested and charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct then left the courtroom without an arraignment.
But the protesters say they were already treated like criminals through the arrests and being brought up on criminal charges in the first place. They want a trial on those original charges because they believe they are innocent.
"We believe we actually have a right to be on this land, it is public land. And we believe the certificate was given out illegally. The state just pulled a quick one on us and made a motion to convert the criminal charges into civil citations, which are basically parking tickets. This is obviously their fear of a trial," Vivienne Simon, one of those arrested said.
"We intend to push to have that trail and have our day in court to talk about the immorality and illegality of what is going on."
Kinder Morgan was given notice to proceed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in early April and the company began cutting trees for the $93 million natural gas pipeline expansion. The Massachusetts Loop will run a 36-inch diameter pipe nearly four miles near Sandisfield and through Otis State Forest and lands under state protection; the Connecticut Loop will run more than 8 miles of 24-inch diameter pipe from Agawam to East Granby, Conn.
A court ruling dating back a year gave the authority to FERC to override the state's protections.
Multiple groups filed appeals with FERC seeking to halt the project and the protestors say those appeals haven't been settled while the tree cutting is going on.
"We believe there is merit to our case and there is no actual need for this pipeline," said Jean Atwater-Williams, who was one of the founders of Sandisfield Residents Opposed to the Pipeline (STOP).
Atwater-Williams particularly contends the need for more natural gas, which is one of the major driving factors for issuing approval for such projects. She said the needs assessment was based on 2013 numbers and update projections show the demand has dropped significantly.
"The need for natural gas is way, way down," Atwater-Williams said.
Atwater-Williams is close to the pipeline's path and soon she is expecting Kinder Morgan to begin cutting trees on her property, just 270 feet away from her home. STOP has been trying to plead its case that the pipeline has not been needed since 2016, but they've heard silence from FERC.
"They have failed to answer anyone's concerns. They have failed to respond to our senators and our congressmen, which is unconscionable. They are simply ignoring the issues," Atwater-Williams said.
Further, FERC doesn't have a quorum so it can't even render a decision on the appeal.
"It is beyond unreasonable that they would think it is appropriate to issue a notice to proceed," said Susan Baxter, who owns land abutting the project. "We literally can do nothing but stand up for our rights at this point."
U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey both immediately tried to get FERC to rescind the order to proceed to no avail.
"Nearly a year has lapsed since FERC granted the rehearing request, and no action has been taken to hear the concerns of the citizens of Sandisfield, effectively silencing them before the Commission and before the Courts," the senators wrote on April 19.
"For FERC to allow last week's issuance of a notice to proceed with construction when it lacks a quorum and, therefore, cannot act on the rehearing request, is profoundly troubling."
The senators felt the work being done down would do "irreparable harm" to the state forest. They said if FERC can't act on requests for a rehearing because it doesn't have a quorum, then staff should not have the authority to issue notices to proceed with those projects.
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal later penned a similar letter. But the tree cutting began and protest groups, most notably the Sugar Shack Alliance, went to the state forest in Sandisfield to stop them.
On May 2, 18 of the demonstrators were arrested by state police for trespassing when groups of nine attempted to block the access road. On May 6, six more were arrested. Of the total 24 arrested, 16 were in Southern Berkshire District Court in Great Barrington on Thursday; the rest have later court dates.
Christopher Sabo of Ashfield was one of those arrested on May 6. He said the pipeline is destroying the environment and when the 31-year-old looks back on this year, he wants to know that he stood up for what he believes is right.
"I don't want to be complaisant in a system that values profit at the expense of a healthy, clean, and safe environment," Sabo said. "We're not going to submissive. We want a future on this planet."
The 16 who were supposed to be arraigned on Thursday are now due back in court on June 20. Simon is firm in her belief that the protesters are in the right and wants a trial on the criminal charges.
"We were caught off guard today. We came in here to plead not guilty because we believe that the actions that are going on are both immoral on the part of the fossil fuel industry and illegal because this FERC permission to proceed on the pipeline was done while the process of determining whether or not this is legal action went ahead," Simon said.
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