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W.Va. Anti-Protest Bill Draws Free Speech, Environmental Criticism At Public Hearing

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Perry Bennett
/
West Virginia Legislative Photography
Deborah Hamilton holds up a t-shirt at the public hearing on House Bill 4615 on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. The bill, known as the West Virginia Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, would penalize those who protest at pipelines and other sites.

Those protesting pipelines and other industrial sites could be subject to fines and imprisonment under a new bill being considered in the West Virginia House of Delegates. The lower chamber’s Judiciary Committee held a public hearing Monday on a measure known as the West Virginia Critical Infrastructure Protection Act.

House Bill 4615 would designate and protect facilities the measure deems “critical infrastructure facilities” — including oil refineries, natural gas operations, telecommunications infrastructure, railroads, chemical plants, government-regulated dams and water treatment facilities. The measure would impose various jail sentences and fines for trespassing, vandalism and “conspiring” with those who carry out those acts. 

A majority of those who spoke at Monday’s public hearing opposed House Bill 4615, citing the First Amendment right to free expression. Many said the measure would be redundant, citing  state laws already on the books that prohibit trespassing and vandalism. 

“This bill is designed to chill protesters,” said Rev. Jim Lewis, an Episcopal priest and progressive activist who lives in Charleston. “There are plenty of laws on the book and you know it and everyone in this room knows it — plenty of laws on the books already — to deal with property and personal injury or death or trouble.”

Protests have been an important tool used by environmental and labor activists in recent years to oppose energy development. 

Those who spoke against House Bill 4615 referenced the protest of the Dakota Access pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota as well as a months-long protest in eastern Kentucky where unpaid, suddenly out of work Blackjewel L.L.C. miners blocked a freight train loaded with coal. Also mentioned was a more recent protest of Quest Energy for unpaid labor that echoed the Blackjewel blockade.

“Imagine for a moment those actions occurring here in West Virginia with [House Bill 4615] in effect,” said Chad Cordell, president of the Kanawha Forest Coalition.  “Imagine a circumstance where employees at a port, a trucking terminal or compressor station don't get paid for their work and are forced to, to quote from the bill, ‘impede or inhibit operations,’ at their place of employment — so that they can get paid and put food on their table and make their house payments.”

Cordell added the bill, if passed, calls for the imprisonment and fines for those who trespass or vandalize a site deemed a critical infrastructure facility. The penalties include sentences ranging between 30 days to one year and a fine of no less than $500 for trespassing. For trespassing with intent to vandalize, the bill calls for one to three years in jail and a fine of no less than $1,000. Those convicted of vandalism would be subject to one to five years in jail and a fine of no less than $2,000. 

Cordell also noted that those who conspire with those who commit trespassing would be fined at least $5,000 and those who conspire with those who commit vandalism would be fined at least $10,000. 

The bill currently provides no limits on the amounts of fines for those who would be convicted under the proposed law. 

A group of Eastern Panhandle residents opposed to the bill traveled more than 300 miles together to speak at the public hearing. Mary Mattlage was among those who made the trip Monday to the Capitol.

“West Virginia suffers from a resource curse despite having such a wealth of natural resources. The people historically have not profited,” Mattlage said. “We assume the risks in the form of explosions, toxic spills, pollutants in the water supply — and the costs, destruction of property, diminished property values and increased medical expenses particularly for those who live in close proximity to coal and gas facilities. While the profits go right out of the state just like the gas flowing through those pipelines. Silencing those of us who are trying to protect our water and air and to preserve our quality of life for the future is not in anyone's best interest.”

Of the 26 speakers at the hearing, only three spoke in favor of the proposal. 

West Virginia Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Anne Blankenship was one of them. She said the bill is narrowly tailored to focus categories of critical infrastructure facilities as defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“This bill protects national and state security and economic interest and our safety, while at the same time protects constitutional rights and free speech,” Blankenship said. “We've heard a lot today from people that have traveled all over the state that feel passionately and are fearful of this bill and are worried that it's going to take away their constitutional right to free speech and their lawful, peaceful protest — and that is just not the case. The bill is intended to preempt acts of intentional trespass and damage to critical infrastructure facilities.”

House Bill 4615 mirrors model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative nonprofit that shares state legislation. Ten other states have adopted similar laws, including Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota. A similar measure is being debated in Ohio. 

Last year, a U.S. District Judge blocked South Dakota’s law and stated that it violated the right to free speech, which ultimately led to the governor and attorney general backing off on defending the legislation. 

A challenge to Louisiana’s anti-protest law is currently making its way through the courts in that state. 

 

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