Louisiana Activists Face Terrorism Charges, 15 Years in Prison for Harmless Plastic Stunt

Plastic nurdles. (Photo: Martin Bernetti, Getty)
Plastic nurdles. (Photo: Martin Bernetti, Getty)

Two Louisiana environmental justice activists face up to 15 years in prison for — wait for it — delivering boxes of plastic to oil and gas lobbyists. Anne Rolfes and Kate McIntosh, who work with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, turned themselves into the cops on Thursday and were handcuffed and brought from a Baton Rouge police station to jail.

The charges stem from what took place at an anti-plastic event the Bucket Brigade held in December called Nurdlefest, named after the pellets produced by plastic manufacturing plants. The event was organised to draw attention to the harm caused by the plastics industry in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley as well as a proposal by Formosa Plastics to build one of the biggest plastic plants in the U.S.

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To draw attention to the harm that will be caused by a petrochemical and plastics complex approved to be built by Formosa Plastics in St. James Parish, the two women dropped off boxes of nurdles at the homes of Formosa Plastics officials, along with information about the impacts of plastic pollution.

That’s it. That’s all they did. And for that, they were charged with “terrorising” the officials.

Look, plastic is dangerous. It can mess with trees and marine life and people’s health. And plastic plants are dangerous, too; they’re a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions which warm the climate and other toxic pollutants which are linked to all sorts of health problems.

But really, you have to wonder who’s doing the terrorising here. Is it the activists who dropped boxes of pellets on officials’ doorsteps to raise awareness about the pollution those pellets cause? Or is it the officials who are planning to build yet another plastics plant in an area already known as “Cancer Alley” because of the rising rates of cancers and other illnesses? ProPublica found that the new plant’s emissions will more than triple residents’ exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.

We know the oil and gas industry are keen to use the legal system to keep environmental activists in check. In the past four years, 21 states have introduced criminal penalties for demonstrating near oil and gas infrastructure with many of those laws mirroring text drafted by the industry-backed American Legislative Exchange Council. In 2019, the federal government proposed legislation that would prescribe up to two decades in prison for “inhibiting the operation” of pipelines — or even just “conspiring” to do so. But even by those standards, these charges seem utterly gratuitous.

The statute the two activists were charged under, Louisiana Revised Statute 14:40.1, can carry a punishment of up to 15 years and a fine of $US15,000 ($21,839). And yeah, Louisiana Bucket Brigade tweeted that the two staffers have been released from jail, but this clearly shouldn’t have even happened in the first place.

“These charges have zero legal merit,” said Pam Spees, an attorney with the Centre for Constitutional Rights who’s representing the activists, said in a statement. “They do not even pass the laugh test.

Right now, the U.S. has big plans to ramp up plastic production. By conservative estimates, plastic production and incineration will create 300 coal plants-worth of greenhouses gases by 2030, and double that by 2050. And it’ll also emit tons of toxic chemicals, which are particularly dangerous for the communities of colour like Louisiana’s St. James Parish where plastic plants are often built.

Activists protest plastic production to push back against all of the horrific environmental injustices it creates. We should be listening to them, not criminalising them.