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DRAWING THE LINE: Bill to make it felony to trespass on construction sites

In response to protests that have sometimes turned destructive in northern Wisconsin, state lawmakers have introduced legislation to make it a felony to trespass on the site of a pipeline.

Their bills, which have drawn criticism from environmental groups, would make it a felony to trespass on sites used for petroleum, renewable-fuel, chemical and water infrastructure. But rather than introduce entirely new rules, the legislation would modify a previous bill that had made it a felony to intentionally damage an energy provider’s property.

The proposal comes partly in response to protests against the Enbridge Line 3 replacement project that runs through Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior. In several cases, protesters have damaged equipment used to build pipelines, drawn graffiti on equipment and occupied job sites for hours. Amid fears such protests could endanger construction workers, labor unions and other groups have sought to tighten the penalties imposed on those who interfere with pipelines.

“In recent years, critical infrastructure worksites in the Midwest have seen millions of dollars of construction equipment set on fire, hydraulic lines punctured, and other property vandalized,” said Terry McGowan, president and business manager of Local 139. “This is dangerous not only for the hard-working men and women on the job site, but also demonstrators and the environment. It is only a matter of time before a serious environmental disaster occurs in Wisconsin from these actions.”

The new legislation, labeled Senate Bill 386 and Assembly Bill 426, has drawn bipartisan support from a broad range of organizations, including the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the Wisconsin Pipe Trades, the Wisconsin Laborers District Council and Construction Business Group. It’s now scheduled for a public hearing before the Assembly’s Committee on Energy and Utilities on Thursday.

Proponents of the bill say recent fierce protests of Enbridge’s pipeline plans have caused some construction workers to fear for their safety.

In one incident in August 2017, “a large gathering” of people went to a construction site in Superior to protest the Enbridge project. According to a subsequent police report, several people then crawled on equipment and piping. When the police arrived, officers found that an excavator’s window had been smashed by a fire extinguisher, causing $178 in damage. Enbridge executives eventually waived their right to press trespassing charges, according to a police report.

In another incident, this one dating to June 2018, people broke into a secured construction site where crews were cleaning old pipeline infrastructure, scrawled anti-Enbridge graffiti, damaged electrical lines and hoses and poured cement into gas tanks, the Superior Telegram reported. That incident occurred after a 13-mile section of the pipeline running through Wisconsin had already been completed.

Some activists, though, have criticized the proposal, comparing it to a bill being pushed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC. Wisconsin’s bill, though, differs in several significant ways.

Winona LaDuke, executive director of Minneapolis-based environmental group Honor the Earth, said the bill would benefit large companies like Enbridge and would be used against those who are opposed to that project and others. She said the bill’s Democratic supporters are “misinformed, fearful and thinking in the short term.”

“The intention of the bill is to diminish the civil liberties of Wisconsin people and water protectors,” LaDuke said. “I can’t agree with the premise of the bill.”

Honor the Earth has long challenged the Enbridge Line 3 project, which would replace a pipeline built in the 1960s to transport oil from western Canada to refineries in the Midwest. The Minnesota Supreme Court last week declined to hear a challenge that Honor the Earth had brought in an attempt to force state regulators to further consider how the project might harm the environment.

But at least one sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Janet Bewley, a Democrat from Mason, said she signed onafter labor unions sought her support. The bill contains a number of exemptions that would prevent people at a pipeline site from being charged in certain circumstances, For instance, wage and hour investigators employed by the Construction Business Group, a trade organization, would be given protection. So would picketing union members, as would people who are gathered lawfully or exercising their right to free speech.

“Passing the bill would actually make it less likely that someone engaging in peaceful protests could be charged with a felony” Bewley said in a statement. “And it also adds specific protections for union organizing and striking, something that ALEC would never support.”

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