Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Cookie-cutter bills, the walk from Selma to Montgomery, & restricted beaches

A 2017 protest against the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines. Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen/Flickr

Quietly, during the first few weeks of 2018, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful conservative lobbying organization, finalized model legislation for the “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act.” The bill proposes criminalizing trespassing or entering property containing “critical infrastructure facilities,” defined as refineries, pipelines, power stations, chemical operations, dams, and other types of industry infrastructure.

This week, Louisiana lawmakers introduced a bill eerily similar to ALEC’s cookie-cutter legislation: it says the state can punish protesters for “conspiring” to trespass on these sites. As The Intercept reports, the Louisiana bill takes it a step further than ALEC’s, with language that could allow people to be convicted of “conspiring” before they even step foot on the sites; for doing so, they could face large fines or prison time.  

This comes as the protests against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline—a 163-mile pipeline that would stretch across 11 south Louisiana parishes and carry up to 480,000 barrels of oil per day to Texas—reach an all-time high. As I wrote a few weeks ago, a Louisiana judge blocked a section of the pipeline that would cut through the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana, but a higher court lifted the ban less than a week later. In early March, a judge in Acadia Parish issued a temporary restraining order against a landowner, ordering her not to interfere with construction of the pipeline on her own property. The pipeline owner, Energy Transfer Partners, says some of its equipment has been vandalized; on its website, the company uses the same “critical infrastructure” language.

ALEC says that the model bill is based on Oklahoma legislation that passed last year, which made it a felony with a minimum $10,000 fine if a court decides a person or group entered property to “impede or inhibit operations.” The legislation was pushed through not long after protesters ramped up opposition to the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines.

ALEC, which is funded by fossil fuel industry billionaires Charles and David Koch, is well-known for its model conservative bills, often created with help from industry lobbyists. They allow states to fill in the blanks and personalize legislation to their needs. Similar “criminal infrastructure” bills have also been introduced in Ohio, Wyoming, Iowa, and Minnesota. 

Since President Trump was elected, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law has been tracking anti-protest bills; currently, 31 states have considered 62 bills. For instance, Virginia passed legislation banning protests at the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, and Tennessee enacted new penalties for protesters who block traffic.Kentucky lawmakers proposed a bill that would eliminate driver liability for hitting protesters.

The purpose of drawing attention to this is bigger than pipelines or protests—it’s about the growing influence of networks like ALEC over state legislatures. It’s about the shrinking of public spaces, by restricting access to common protest sites or criminalizing ideas before they turn into action. It’s about the lengths people go to in order to protect what they care deeply about—whether it’s a radical environmental activist in a tree or a woman who changed her mind about giving up her yard—and the fear-mongering tactics those in power use to stop them. 

It’s easy to shrug proposed bills or conservative state laws off, assuming they couldn’t possibly gain traction. But decades of evidence show us otherwise: they are strategically planned, with lawmakers and pro-industry groups working in tandem. As debates over who is responsible for the costs of climate change heat up in court, as EPA officials successfully unravel clean air and water rules and reject civil rights complaints, it’s likely more of these will be pushed through the cracks. If there’s one thing history has shown us, it’s that the more people speak out against powerful industries, the more resources are put into keeping them quiet.

Stories worth your time

National Park Service officials have deleted every mention of humans’ role in causing climate change in drafts of a 2016 report on risks from rising seas and flooding at 118 coastal national park sites. An investigation by Elizabeth Shogren at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting shows that terms like “anthropogenic,” and “human activities” causing climate change were removed. The report documents flooding projections at sites like Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina, three parks in Virginia, and Florida’s Everglades National Park—all without mentioning human-influenced climate change.

Rahawa Haile wrote for Buzzfeed about how she walked the 54-mile Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail last year after Jeff Sessions was appointed as Trump’s attorney general. Haile’s essay is a meditation on grief, anger, passion, history, and what it’s like to move through America—and its public spaces—as a black woman. “While the white hikers I’d shared the Appalachian Trail with from Georgia to Maine were busy planning their next adventures, each day in America under the new administration served as a reminder of the myriad ways I’d never be one of them. My feet were bound tighter and tighter by the dual diseases of vanishing civil rights and threatened public lands. The best I could do most days was stand in the pooling blood.”

Months ago, the Knoxville News Sentinel did a series of stories on the treatment of workers at the cleanup of Tennessee Valley Authority’s massive coal ash spill in Roane County in 2008. Court records now show there are 180 new cases of dying and dead workers, who have had lung diseases, cancers, and skin conditions from the toxic chemicals. Attorneys have filed a new lawsuit on their behalf.

Grist profiled people across the country with ambitious ideas about how to tackle humanity’s biggest problems—and quite a few are from the South. I wrote about Dan Conant, founder of solar company Solar Holler. Check out Cheetie Kumar in Raleigh, North Carolina, who is helping reshape the Southern food scene; Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity; Daniel Blackman, a clean energy and environmental justice advocate in Atlanta; Yudith Nieto, who is creating a network of women-of-color environmental activists throughout the Gulf region; Christine Nieves, who helped build an oasis for rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria; and Delany Reynolds, who helped draft an ordinance requiring solar panels for newly built homes in South Miami.

News flying under the radar

One of Duke Energy’s plants in central North Carolina is now burning natural gas created from hog manure from five farms in the state. Methane from the hog waste at five farms in Duplin County is converted to natural gas and used to make electricity. 

Starting July 1, it will be up to Florida homeowners and businesses to decide if they want to restrict the public from using their portion of the beach from the high tide line up—what is usually considered as public beach.

West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Management launched a new website with information about pipeline construction in the state, including transcripts of public hearings, press releases, and some permits.

Two Republican Florida lawmakers are calling on EPA chief Scott Pruitt to resign amid scrutiny over his spending habits and ties to fossil fuel lobbyists.

The Southern Environmental Law Center and other environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, alleging the agency is “illegally endangering the soil, forests, and waters of the Cherokee National Forest and hiding those risks from the public.”