‘Powerful victory’ as judge dismisses charges against Line 3 water protectors

"Why are U.S. citizens who are trying to protect themselves from a foreign fossil fuel corporation facing arrest, when no one at Enbridge will ever be held accountable for their crimes?"

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Water protectors faced off with police at Shell River in Hubbard County, Minnesota on July 19, 2021.(Photo credit: Sarah LittleRedfeather)

Opponents of Line 3 on Tuesday welcomed a Minnesota judge’s dismissal of all charges against five water protectors arrested last year for protesting plans to have the tar sands pipeline cross the Shell River in several places.

“Why are U.S. citizens who are trying to protect themselves from a foreign fossil fuel corporation facing arrest, when no one at Enbridge will ever be held accountable for their crimes?”

Framed as a replacement project by Canadian oil giant Enbridge, the new pipeline runs partly along a different route and roughly doubled the capacity of the initial Line 3. It began operating last month after years of construction and Indigenous-led protests.

Minnesota District Judge Doug Clark on Monday dismissed the cases of Cheryl Barnds, Mary Klein, Kelly Maracle, Trish Weber, and Barbara With “on grounds that the state had failed to demonstrate probable cause to sustain all charges,” according to Honor the Earth and the legal groups representing the water protectors. “In doing so, Judge Clark did not reach the Shell River defendants’ treaty-based claims.”

The other two members of the “Shell River Seven,” independent photojournalist K. Flo Razowsky and Honor the Earth executive director and co-founder Winona LaDuke, still face three misdemeanor charges each, to which they—like the five who had their cases dismissed—pleaded not guilty.

“Criminalizing and over-charging protestors is a common tactic used by the state to scare activists and suppress movements,” said attorney Claire Glenn, the Line 3 legal fellow of the Water Protector Legal Collective and Civil Liberties Defense Center. “The criminalization of the Shell River defendants was no exception, and this dismissal is a powerful victory for water protectors.”

Glenn—who represented Barnds and will continue to represent LaDuke with Anishinaabe movement lawyer Frank Bibeau—added that “we are hopeful that the prosecutor will do the right thing and dismiss the other water protectors’ cases that remain open in Wadena County, including that of Shell River guardian ad litem Winona LaDuke.”

Both Bibeau and LaDuke on Tuesday highlighted the controversial decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to establish a fund through which Enbridge reimbursed the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and various law enforcement agencies for policing the construction of Line 3.

“It’s no surprise that cases continue to be dismissed for lack of probable cause and other constitutional deprivations and violations, after the Minnesota Legislature criminalized protected civil rights and the PUC created a multimillion-dollar slush fund to militarize fast and furious enforcement by the DNR and local law enforcement,” said Bibeau.

Arguing that the fund “incentivized” law enforcement agencies that were collectively paid millions of dollars “to bring these phony charges against water protectors throughout the north country,” LaDuke said that “overzealous local police, state troopers, and DNR officers made over 1,000 arrests of people peacefully working to Stop Line 3 in 2020 and 2021.”

“The state continues to waste taxpayer monies in the courts, prosecuting these frivolous attempts to make criminals out of us, while the real criminals breach our aquifers and fill the Mississippi River headwaters with frac-out fluids,” she added, referring to the unintentional release of drilling fluids.

Under recently confirmed agreements with the DNR and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Enbridge will pay over $11 million in fines and for environmental restoration projects due to water quality issues stemming from construction. The company also faces a misdemeanor criminal charge set to be dismissed after a year of complying with state water rules.

“The sad irony is that we will all pay Enbridge’s fines with every tank of gas at the pump or home heating fuel, and live with the irreparable environmental degradation,” said Bibeau. “Minnesota should dismiss all water protector charges and quit wasting the courts’ resources.”

Klein similarly said that she prays the remaining charges against water protectors will be dismissed, and “protecting water, land, and treaty rights is not a crime. Perhaps now we can hold the Enbridge corporation accountable for their crimes against nature and humanity.”

Other defendants also took aim at the company. Noting the new criminal charge against Enbridge in Minnesota, With said: “When are they going to court? They aren’t.”

“Why are U.S. citizens who are trying to protect themselves from a foreign fossil fuel corporation facing arrest, when no one at Enbridge will ever be held accountable for their crimes?” With asked. “Today we have a tiny bit of justice but the fight for our rights and the water continue.”

Barnds pointed out that “the millions they’re paying for irreparable damage to pristine waters, like the millions they spent arresting those protesting crimes against Mother Earth and Indigenous rights, are line items on a spreadsheet, drops in a bottomless bucket of greed and delusion.”

“Fossil fuels must be stopped,” Barnds warned, “before we poison our last drop of water, pollute our last breath of air, torch our only life-sustaining planet.”

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