Arrests made in pipeline protest
WINONA -- Smith County deputies arrested three protesters near Winona after chaining themselves to heavy concrete blocks inside a section of a controversial pipeline under construction in East Texas.
Smith County Sheriff J.B. Smith said two men and one woman were arrested for criminal trespass after deputies removed the protesters from inside a section of the 36-inch steel pipe. The protestors also will be charged with resisting arrest and illegal dumping, more than 500 pounds but less than 1,000 pounds, he said.
The activists, from Oregon, Florida and Louisiana, were released Monday afternoon on $500 surety bonds.
Work crews sat idle Monday morning until past noon waiting for the pipe to be cleared as around two dozen protesters with Tar Sands Blockade shouted encouragement to their colleagues and directed frustrations toward more than two dozen Sheriff's Office personnel gathered around the site at the corner of County Road 363 and County Road 357 east of Winona, including members of its SWAT team.
Tar Sands Blockade spokeswoman Kim Huynh said the protesters risked life and limb on behalf of local landowners who say TransCanada, a Canadian pipeline company, bullied them and used fraud, deceit and illegal eminent domain actions to acquire right-of-way on their land for the project, which will connect Canadian tar sands fields with refineries near Houston.
Ms. Huynh said activists will continue delay tactics as courts and regulatory agencies in Texas and other states decide legal challenges against the pipeline.
"We've settled in for the long-term," she said. "Landowners are supportive because they've been lied to (by TransCanada) and because they see a threat to their health and safety."
The site, she noted, pointing to a home around 50 yards from the snaking pipe, is "literally in these people's backyard."
Environmentalists say pipelines carrying tar sands pose a danger because spills occur more frequently and are harder to clean.
Ms. Huynh said protesters are the last line of defense for landowners along the 435-mile, $2.3 billion section, which will connect refineries and storage facilities in Oklahoma with refineries along the Gulf Coast.
Tars Sands Blockade protesters have shut down construction with similar tactics along the pipeline's path, which runs through eastern Wood and Smith counties, northeast and southeast corners of Cherokee County and western Nacogdoches County.
The pipeline would lie just east of Winnsboro, Hawkins, Winona, New Chapel Hill, Arp, New Summerfield, Reklaw and Wells.
In October, actress Darryl Hannah and Winnsboro resident Eleanor Fairchild were arrested for preventing construction crews to clear trees on Mrs. Fairchild's land. Both were arrested for criminal trespass.
Smith said this was the first encounter with pipeline protesters.
"They have a right to protest, but they don't have the right to stop the construction of the pipeline," he said. "If they do so they will be arrested."
TransCanada spokesman Jim Prescott said the company's first concern is the safety of workers, law enforcement officers and even the protesters.
"These types of actions put people's health and safety at risk," he said in the email. "We hope those responsible reconsider what they are doing before someone is hurt."
Before the pipeline project broke ground, Prescott said its pipeline will be the safest ever built, and that the crude traveling the pipe is no dirtier than oil currently arriving from Venezuela or parts of California.
Proponents said the pipeline increases the nation's energy capacity while reducing dependence on foreign oil from unfriendly countries and create jobs.
The pipeline became politically charged when congressional Republicans gave President Barack Obama 60 days to decide whether TransCanada should be granted the necessary permit for the pipeline to cross an international border before making its way 1,700 miles south to the Texas coast.
Obama, saying his administration did not have enough time to study the potential environmental impacts, denied the permit in January.
However, he encouraged TransCanada to reroute the northern portion of the pipeline to avoid an environmentally sensitive area of Nebraska. He also promised to expedite permitting of a southern portion of the pipeline from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast to relieve a bottleneck at the Cushing refinery.
TransCanada began construction of that portion of the pipeline this summer after receiving the necessary permits. Some Texas landowners, joined by activists from outside the state, have tried through various protests to stop or slow down construction. Several lawsuits have been filed by Texas landowners to stop the pipeline.
Protesters are finding new and inventive ways to stall construction. Typically protestors stand in the path of or attach themselves to equipment to prevent work. Ms. Huynh said the three protestors chained themselves to concrete blocks weighing several hundred pounds, a first for the group.
"We're all aware of the risks to our safety," Ms. Huynh said. "These (protesters) are passionate about standing up for landowners' rights and the environment and against a multi-national corporation looking out for profit over people."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.