By Jess Wisloski
Demonstrators from around the state converged on Williston in the wee hours Monday morning to stage sit-ins, or in some cases lock themselves to pieces of construction equipment being used in Vermont Gas’s digging of a natural gas pipeline.
Two protesters, Chris Schroth and Sophia Wilansky, locked themselves to an excavator at a pipeline dig site off Hurricane Lane, where Williston Police and Williston Fire Department responders found them at around 6 a.m.
Responders talked to the demonstrators and then began to cut them out of the protective barrier and handcuffs they had used to chain themselves to the excavator, using a rotating saw. Sparks flew as the saw made contact. When Sophia Wilansky was released, police officers carried her by both arms, handcuffed behind her back, to an awaiting patrol car. She pulled up her legs so they didn’t touch the ground, a tactic of civil disobedience, throughout the arrest.
“It’s pretty dangerous,” said Will Bennington, an organizer with Rising Tide. “Usually they at least provide some safety equipment when they’re cutting with sparks that close to somebody, but not today.”
Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton said no harm was present. “At no time during the removal operation was there any life hazard to either protesters or responders. Every means of ensuring personal and public safety was addressed prior to, during and after the removal process.”
Beth Parent, a spokesperson for Vermont Gas, said the intention was to keep workers and civilians safe. “Safety is our number one priority in everything we do – that includes our crews in the field, our employees in the office and our neighbors in the community,” she said in a prepared statement on Monday.
“We realize there is a small group of individuals who oppose this project and are determined to take any action necessary to disrupt our important work,” and noted that in some cases, the utility has created designated sites for the protesters to congregate. “These folks have a right to express their views, but we will not tolerate anyone putting themselves or anyone else in harm’s way,” she said.
“We are working closely with law enforcement agencies to ensure disruptions and issues of trespassing are managed safely. Our construction is moving forward and we will continue to work with law enforcement to ensure that it does so safely.”
Chris Schroth, of Burlington, took the day off from work as a carpenter to obstruct pipeline construction, according to a release by Rising Tide Vermont, an environmental group that opposes the pipeline and any new infrastructure supporting fossil fuels.
“We can’t sit by and let the state and corporations make decisions that are unaccountable to our communities and to future generations,” he said in the release. “The people in charge aren’t going to budge unless we get in their way and take matters into our own hands through direct action. And we are seeing people across the continent and across the world coming to this same conclusion,” he said.
Jane Palmer, who has been protesting the gas pipeline for three years after she learned it was going to cut through her land in Monkton, blamed the state for forcing normally law-abiding citizens to resort to direct action demonstrations.
“It’s basically what we’re left with,” said Palmer. “The utility regulatory system failed, it’s corrupt. The public has been ignored and this pipeline has been approved against the will of the people. The only thing we have left to do is put our bodies on the line,” she said.
Five other protesters blocked an access road further south on Route 2A, diagonal to the intersection of Walker Hill Road and according to Rising Tide, an additional two demonstrators were chained to excavation equipment along the utility clearing in the woods.
A gravel equipment driveway on 2A became a staging area for artists and protesters from Bread and Puppet Theater, who arrived in a bus from Glover and held a small procession, led by a bass drum, clarinet and saxophone playing klezmer music.
The five protesters at the 2A location sat on the ground in front of a banner, arms locked together. Beth Thompson, from Danby, said she was opposed to the pipeline because she was against any more fossil fuels construction.
“This is for our future,” she said. “There’s no reason we should keep creating infrastructure around fossil fuels, when they aren’t sustainable.”
“We’re in favor of fossil fuels,” said one protester. “As long as they stay in the ground.”
The creation of the natural gas pipeline, a 41-mile project, was originally approved by state regulators in late 2013 for $87 million. Since then, Vermont Gas increased the price tag to $154 million and the utility intends to ask ratepayers to pay up to $134 million, the Burlington Free Press reported. Meanwhile, the company has also required non-disclosure agreements for landowners it has purchased rights of way from and unless asked by the Public service Board — which hasn’t asked it to do so — said it will not disclose complete expense listings.
The company broke ground on the pipeline, which would run from Colchester to Middlebury, in June 2014 and plans to complete the work this year.
In March, Hinesburg residents threw an unexpected wrench in that plan, when they discovered that the town selectboard had entered quietly into an agreement with Vermont Gas to allow the utility to proceed with the planned dig along a 2,000-foot stretch of the 80-acre Geprags Community Park, in exchange for certain requests including providing pipeline access to parts of Richmond Road.
Since then, a group hired anti-pipeline litigator Jim Dumont, from Bristol, to represent them and block seizure of the public, and some argue, protected, land.