Two Louisiana environmental activists face up to 15 years in prison after they were arrested Thursday for terrorizing an oil and gas lobbyist by leaving a box of plastic "nurdles" on his front porch.
Anne Rolfes and Kate McIntosh with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade turned themselves in at 8:30 a.m. and were held for nearly nine hours by Baton Rouge police, their attorney, Pam Spees, said Thursday evening.
"These charges have zero legal merit," Spees said in a written statement earlier. "They do not even pass the laugh test."
She said she would be asking local prosecutors "to look carefully at these arrests and reject the charges against these two dedicated advocates as soon as possible."
Rolfes and McIntosh are part of a broad coalition fighting to stop the Taiwanese Formosa Petrochemical Corp. and its subsidiary, FG LA LLC, from constructing a massive, $9.6 billion plastics and petrochemical complex, proposed on 2,400 acres in a predominantly Black portion of St. James Parish.
An analysis by ProPublica found the complex could more than triple the level of cancer-causing chemicals that residents of St. James are exposed to. It also found that the area around the site is already more saturated with those toxins than more than 99 percent of industrialized areas in the country.
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade is an environmental nonprofit with a goal of ending petrochemical pollution in Louisiana.
As activists have fought development across the state in recent years, Louisiana lawmakers have twice moved to stiffen criminal penalties for trespassing on oil and gas infrastructure.
In 2018, the state enacted a law that made trespassing on pipelines or industry sites a felony, punishable with up to five years in prison. This year, Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed a bill that would have imposed a mandatory minimum three-year sentence if the trespassing occurred when the state is under a state of emergency.
The incident that prompted the arrests happened on Dec. 11, after a report of a "suspicious package" left on the porch of a residence, said Don Coppola, a spokesman for the Baton Rouge Police Department.
A lobbyist for the oil and gas industry lived in the home, The Times-Picayune and The New Orleans Advocate reported. There was a note on the package "indicating not to open the container as the contents could be hazardous," Coppola said. It contained plastic nurdles—the raw material from which plastic products are made—that had been manufactured at another Formosa plant.
The arrest prompted the formation of a new regional alliance to defend democracy and promote free speech.
A press release from the newly formed Alliance to Defend Democracy said the plastic nurdles had come from a Formosa plant in Port Comfort, Texas, which had, according to a federal lawsuit, spilled massive amounts of the pellets into Lavaca Bay.
"The sealed package was labeled with a written disclaimer," explaining what was in it, and advocating that Formosa's air permit be denied, the alliance said.
In early January, the plant was granted the air quality permits it needed by the state of Louisiana.
In December, a federal judge in Texas approved a $50 million settlement in a citizen-lawsuit over the spilled nurdles and other pollution.
"(Formosa) was unaware that this action was going to be taken by the Baton Rouge Police Department and had only heard secondhand that deliveries of plastic pellets were made to several personal residences in the Baton Rouge area some months ago," said Janile Parks, the FG LA LLC director of community and government relations, in a written response.
The new coalition includes community leaders, clergy, free speech advocates and various environmental organizations, and was created as Louisiana has cracked down on people protesting oil and gas development.
"We have fought hard for our constitutional rights and we take them seriously here in Louisiana," said Sharon Lavigne, a member of the newly formed Alliance to Defend Democracy.
The women were not booked under the law that made trespassing on oil and gas facilities illegal, but a different statute that prohibits "terrorizing," according to the new alliance's press release. Spees said both face a punishment of up to 15 years in prison.
"These charges will have a chilling effect on our democracy unless they're swiftly dismissed," Lavigne said.
InsideClimate News' Nicholas Kusnetz contributed to this report.