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Testimony: Group that tampered with pipeline valve felt they had no choice

Activists are seen attempting to cut chains after trespassing into a valve station for pipelines carrying crude from Canadian oils sands into the U.S. markets near Clearbrook, Minn. in this image released on Oct. 11, 2016. (Courtesy Climate Direct Action/Handout via REUTERS)

BAGLEY -- Four people accused of trespassing and tampering with Enbridge pipeline valves believed they had no choice but to disrupt the pipeline company’s transportation of tar sands, according to testimony given Tuesday in state district court.

Emily Johnston, 50, and Benjamin Joldersma, 39, of Seattle; Annette Klapstein, 64, of Bainbridge Island, Wash., and Steven Liptay, 37, of Brooklyn, N.Y., appeared in court to testify after their attorney filed a motion asking to present a jury with a necessity defense upon trial.

A necessity defense is used to shield people who must break the law in order to prevent greater harm.

The four were arrested Oct. 11 after Johnston and Klapstein used bolt cutters to cut padlocks and chains in order to access a pipeline facility near Leonard, Minn. Liptay, a documentarian and photojournalist, was documenting the act and Joldersma went along to help with safety precautions, according to their own testimony.

Enbridge, which received a warning call from the group informing them of its plan to turn off the line, ended up shutting down the valve for about a day, Liptay testified.

Klapstein, Johnston and Joldersma are all charged with felonies stemming from the incident. Liptay is charged with two gross misdemeanors.

In a 35-page memorandum filed in February, the attorney for all four activists wrote that “their actions were motivated by the need to mitigate catastrophic climate change and its effects on public health and the natural environment.”

The group had taken lawful action to try to stop the transportation of tar sands, attorney Timothy Phillips wrote, but “The economic power of oil, gas, and coal companies, exacerbated by corruption and the evisceration of public participation in policymaking, have blocked government action on climate change, leaving no reasonable legal alternative for individuals seeking to avert its ongoing harms.”

Clearwater County prosecutors objected to the potential necessity defense. In a different memorandum, former prosecutor Richard Mollin wrote that the group had not tampered with the valve in order to avoid immediate harm.

“The necessity defense was never intended to excuse criminal activity by those who disagree with the decisions and policies of the lawmaking branches of government.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, Phillips questioned Johnston and Klapstein on previous acts of civil disobedience in Washington state, which the two women said had been successful and brought about change. This led them to believe similar actions in Minnesota would make a difference, they said.

“If you’re willing to take a personal, legal risk and make yourself vulnerable...people are willing to listen,” Johnston testified, adding later on that she hoped her actions would resonate with others.

All four defendants also testified to their fears of climate change. Joldersma, who has three young children, teared up while answering questions from his attorney.

“My kids are living in a world where forests are vanishing,” Joldersma said. “I picture them asking, ‘what did you do, dad?’”

Prosecutor David Louis Hanson asked each defendant the same three questions: whether they were a scientist, whether they saw an active oil spill at the valve site and whether they saw anyone in immediate danger there. Liptay has degrees in environmental studies and environmental policy and had worked with a biologist before he began a career as a documentarian. The other three did not consider themselves scientists. None of them saw an oil spill, or anyone in danger.

The two attorneys must file briefs with any additional arguments by Sept. 15, after which the judge will decide whether to allow the four to go forward with a necessity defense.

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or gpastoor@bemidjipioneer.com

(218) 333-9796
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