Early Thursday morning, two activists who have opposed a planned $9.4 billion petrochemical complex in St. James Parish, Louisiana, were arrested for “terrorizing” an oil and gas lobbyist connected to the Taiwanese plastics manufacturer responsible for the development. While the protest action leading to the charges occurred six months ago, the arrests come just a week after residents of the parish won a court battle against the company, allowing them to host a Juneteenth prayer ceremony on a slave burial site on the company’s property.
The charges against Anne Rolfes and Kate McIntosh — two members of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the environmental health and justice organization that’s been fighting the plastics company, Formosa, alongside RISE St. James, another grassroots environmental justice group — carry a punishment of up to 15 years in prison and a fine of $15,000.
Last year, a judge ruled that Formosa had illegally dumped billions of plastic pellets called nurdles into Texas’ Lavaca Bay and other waterways. The company agreed to pay a $50 million settlement as a result of complaints and lawsuits filed by Texas residents and environmental groups. In December, Louisiana activists sent a sealed container filled with the company’s nurdles to the home of an oil and gas lobbyist in Baton Rouge, as an act of protest against the company’s planned development in Louisiana. The package was accompanied by a letter explaining the box’s contents.
According to Bill Quigley, an attorney representing Rolfes and McIntosh, the Baton Rouge police department called him early Thursday morning, claiming that there were outstanding charges against the two. Both turned themselves in, but they were reportedly taken to the parish prison in handcuffs and leg irons. The two were released on bond late Thursday afternoon.
“The timing is suspicious,” Quigley told Grist. “It seems a little bit more than coincidental that six months pass, and now charges against them are being announced, as the community fights for the cemetery that Formosa resisted so urgently to keep them away from.”
Janile Parks, Formosa’s director of community and government relations, denied that the company had any role in or knowledge of the arrests. “[Formosa] was unaware that this action was going to be taken by the state and had only heard second hand that deliveries of plastic pellets were made … in the Baton Rouge area some months ago,” she wrote.
Quigley also added that the “terrorizing” statute is a much more serious charge than even Louisiana’s critical infrastructure law, which carries up to five years in prison and a fine of $1,000 for trespassing in the vicinity of critical infrastructure like oil and gas pipelines. The “terrorizing” charge is intended for actions such as bomb threats, according to Quigley.
“It’s really hard to believe that what [the defendants] did was a serious terrorizing threat,” he said.
Soon after Thursday’s arrests, a new coalition called the Alliance to Defend Democracy launched what it says is an effort to protect free speech in Louisiana. The alliance includes community leaders, clergy members, and grassroots environmental organizations such as the Coalition Against Death Alley, the Concerned Citizens of St. John, Extinction Rebellion New Orleans, the Greater New Orleans interfaith Climate Coalition, RISE St. James, the Green Army, 350 New Orleans, No Waste Louisiana, and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
St. James Parish is located in Louisiana’s 85-mile industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which has been known for decades as “cancer alley.” The area’s Black population has suffered disproportionately from the COVID-19 pandemic, and residents have long suffered some of the highest pollution-linked cancer rates in the country. Many residents say that Formosa’s new development will only make matters worse.
St. James resident Sharon Lavigne, an outspoken critic of Formosa and the founder of RISE St. James, had previously been visited by parish sheriff’s deputies and threatened with arrest for peaceful visits to the burial site on Formosa’s property.
“This is our home, and we’re not just going to let Formosa come here and destroy our lives and the health of our community,” Lavigne told Grist. “I’ll die before I give up. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to have more people join us, and we’re going to be stronger.”