“Catastrophic Threat” Motivated Activists Sentenced for Cove Point Crane Climb

40-Day Sentence for Protest Against Fracked Gas Export

Carling Sothoron at top of crane at Cove Point's Offsite A.

Carling Sothoron at top of crane at Cove Point’s Offsite A.

On April 20, two environmental activists appeared in Maryland District Court in Calvert County on charges related to a protest against the Cove Point LNG plant, in which they climbed up the arm of a crane and dropped a banner at a Dominion Cove Point construction site.

In separate proceedings, Carling Sothoron and Heather Doyle pleaded guilty to charges of trespassing for entering the construction area known as “Offsite A” before dawn on February 3. Charges of failure to obey a lawful order and malicious destruction of property were dismissed for Sothoron and Doyle respectively.

Mark Goldstone, Doyle’s attorney, said that she had mounted the crane with climbing equipment to serve as “belay” to Sothoron as the latter scaled to the top of the crane arm.

From the highest point, Sothoron dropped a banner, which read, “Dominion get out. Don’t frack Maryland. No gas exports. Save Cove Point.”

According to Goldstone, his client acted “to communicate concerns about the LNG plant, the site of a potential catastrophe.”

“A methane leak could cause an explosion,” he warned. He also reminded the judge that exactly five years ago to the day, BP’s oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico because of a methane gas bubble.

“This is a dangerous and volatile situation,” he said.

Mark Palumbo, Sothoron’s representative, disputed the contention of state’s attorney that she had refused to come down at his order. She was cooperative but couldn’t come down, because one of the officers at the scene had tied off her equipment.

In accepting their guilty pleas, Judge John E. Nunn III said that he was “sympathetic to the environmental movement.”

“I understand the purpose… to educate people about the dangers of this project,” Judge Nunn said. “But you have to frame your arguments within the confines of the law.”

“How does climbing a crane address this situation?” he asked.

Heather Doyle and Carling Sothoron after being released from detention, February 3.

Heather Doyle and Carling Sothoron after being released from detention, February 3.

Goldstone responded that construction is continuing on the Cove Point project even though the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) has delayed ruling on a request for rehearing on its certificate of approval. FERC should stop construction until a ruling is made.

“The activists believe that this [Cove Point LNG] is not a done deal,” he said.

Judge Nunn took prior convictions into consideration when sentencing. Sothoron received a suspended sentence of 40 days, 3 years unsupervised probation, $500 fine, $300 suspended, and court costs. She was ordered to stay away from Dominion Cove Point and the construction site. Sothoron, age 28, lives in Baltimore and works as an educator for an urban agriculture project.

Doyle was sentenced to 40 days, with credit for time served. Doyle, age 31, requested jail time over probation because probation would prohibit her from entering jails as a volunteer. Next year, Doyle will begin a Master’s program in dance therapy at the University of Maryland.

Sothoron and Doyle are affiliated with SEED (Stopping Extraction and Exports Destruction) Coalition.

In an interview, Doyle said that Cove Point LNG poses a “catastrophic threat” to the community.

“We wanted the action to be an escalation. Banner hangs are a publicity stunt,” she said. “We want Dominion Cove Point to be on notice that there are people who are willing to take more steps to resist the project.”

Dominion Resources began construction on the conversion of Cove Point LNG into an export facility in October 2014. Although it has been an import terminal for decades, often dormant, Cove Point will become an entirely different facility when it begins to export. The comparatively small site in a populated neighborhood will contain a liquefaction train, a power plant and multiple tanks holding large quantities of combustible materials such as propane and aqueous ammonia, in addition to the existing seven gigantic LNG storage tanks.

Cove-Point-crane-climbed-2-February-3-2015Emad Dides, a Calvert County resident present in court on another matter, said he had heard about the expansion of Dominion Cove Point. He doesn’t support it.

“It will pollute the air. The 60-foot wall won’t eliminate noise,” he said. “It will kill wildlife, marine life. It will affect children at the Cove Point Park.”

Dides values having natural gas for his home, and he believes it is a “treasure” that Americans are entitled to before the Chinese or Japanese. (Dominion Cove Point will export LNG to Japan and India.)

But he doesn’t think climbing the crane to make a point about Cove Point was a good strategy. “It’s not an issue of trespass but injury. They risk injuring themselves,” he said.

Doyle, however, contends that she and Sothoron are both “expert climbers” who took precautions.

“Everything we did was done with utmost safety within our system,” she said. “I would never put anyone into a situation where we weren’t trained or equipped.”

She believes that the officers on the scene, in contrast, displayed reckless disregard for their safety.

“This Special Ops Team is supposed to be trained in wide angle rope rescue,” she said. “If they didn’t have those skills, they should have waited to climb up on the crane, or waited for people who operated to get there to assess everything on the ground before they started climbing up.”

On April 7, the Board of County Commissioners awarded Dfc. Robert “Bubba” Brady, Jr. and Dfc. Stephen Esposito a “Team Excellence Award” for their actions on February 3. According to the County’s Award Recognition Committee, Brady and Esposito worked together to bring a “harrowing, high angle rescue” at Offsite A to “a safe and orderly conclusion.”

SEED Coalition released a statement on the sentencing:

We are disappointed but not surprised by the extent of these sentences. They are completely out of proportion to the charges of trespassing to which Heather and Carling pled guilty. However, these penalties reflect a pattern of excessive punishment for peaceful protests undertaken as a last resort in Calvert County. More broadly, we want to use this opportunity to draw attention to the fact that police, courts, and jails are used to sustain a fundamentally unjust system. They subject some people to harsher discipline than others due to their backgrounds or personal characteristics. Heather chose to serve her time in jail so that she will be able to better support and advocate for people in jails and prisons.

_______

NOTE: This article previously stated that Heather Doyle received a sentence of 40 days with time served plus three years’ probation, a stay-away order and court costs. Probation was not part of her sentence, however, and court costs were waived. She is also not required to stay away from Dominion Cove Point.