GRAND RAPIDS — Four members of the Catholic Worker Movement — the self-named Four Necessity Valve Turners accused of damaging Enbridge Inc.’s crude oil pipeline earlier this year — appeared in Itasca County Courthouse on Tuesday morning to receive instructions to return for a joint jury trial scheduled for June 2, 2020.
The four individuals — Allyson Polman, Brenna Cussen Anglada and Daniel Yildirim of Wisconsin and Michele Naar-Obed of Duluth — previously pleaded guilty to one count each of felony and misdemeanor charges of aiding and abetting attempted damage to pipeline property. This week, they re-entered their guilty pleas before the court after turning down a plea bargain by prosecutors, a spokesperson for the group told the Hibbing Daily Tribune. They now face a maximum sentence of five years in prison and $10,000 in fines each if convicted of the felony.
According to a group statement sent via email, the Four Necessity Valve Turners told the HDT that “each feel personally called to step into responsibility by standing in the way of this deadly fossil fuel industry” because of its apparent impacts on climate change.
The scheduling of the jury trial comes one week after the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously to request the state Commerce Department conduct an analysis of the potential effects of crude oil spills in the Lake Superior watershed and report back within 60 days. The most recent decision was the first movement in a project that has been in legal stalemate given the ongoing arguments between Enbridge and environmental and tribal groups.
Back in June, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld most of the environmental review except for the inadequacies regarding Lake Superior, the Associated Press reported. Last month, the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to hear challenges by the opponents to the environmental review.
Canada-based Enbridge has long been seeking to replace its corroded Line 3 built in the 1960s. An estimated $2.6 billion newly built and rerouted pipeline would carry 760,000 barrels a day of crude oil — more than double its current capacity — from Hardisty, Alberta, through northern Minnesota and down to Superior, Wis. The PUC approved the plan in June 2018, despite receiving 68,000 comments in opposition. But then DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s Commerce Chamber filed a lawsuit appealing that decision in December 2018.
Earlier this year, the Four Necessity Valve Turners were arrested for alleging breaking into private property on Feb. 2 along U.S. Highway 2 in Itasca County to shut off the main valve on the pipeline.
That same month, the Minnesota Court of Appeals kicked back the appeal to Gov. Tim Walz, who then sided with his predecessor, environmental groups and some Ojibwe bands who argued that the state was risking a crude oil spill while opening its doors for the financial benefit of other states and countries. “Projects like these don’t just need a building permit to go forward, they also need a social permit,” Walz said in a tweet.
The tweet prompted Minnesota Congressman Pete Stauber to retell his fellow representatives in the House that Enbridge’s project would create more than 4,000 construction jobs, while generating $19 million in property tax revenue. “With all this benefit, it was greatly disappointing to hear we would have further delays,” Stauber said. He added, “Unfortunately, certain state officials of Minnesota feel beholden to, in the words of our operating engineers, environmental extremism.” Without name-dropping, Stauber had appeared to blame Walz for backing the Dayton Administration's appeal. His use of the term “environmental extremism” had been coined by Jason George, the business manager at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, who said pursuing the appeal would be “bad public policy” encouraged by the Four Necessity Valve Turners.
Later that month, the Four Necessity Valve Turners made their initial appearance in the Itasca County Courthouse. During a post-court phone interview, Naar defended the actions to the Hibbing Daily Tribune by saying she was combating threats the pipeline would have on land and water.
“We’ve been watching climate change unfold in front of us,” Naar said. “We felt it was necessary. We felt the danger was imminent. We felt that it was necessary to take these steps. The long haul of keeping it off is going to come through changing people’s hearts and minds.”
Naar continued, “I’m really happy to hear that Governor Walx made his decision,” Naar said. “It’s a very important decision to let not only the voice of science had a place on whether or not to follow with Line 3, but it’s also important to say that our beef is not with one particular pipeline. It’s with the whole industry that has a direct impact on climate change.”
A spokeswoman from Enbridge would write in email to the HDT that the company supported the prosecution of the alleged crimes, because Naar and her co-defendants “put people and the environment at risk.” Spokeswoman Juli Kellner continued, “The actions taken to trespass on our facility and vandalize energy infrastructure were reckless and dangerous. The people involved claimed to be protecting the environment, but they did the opposite. Their actions put themselves, first responders, neighboring communities and landowners at risk.”
When the HDT asked if she believed her actions were reckless and dangerous, Naar replied that “we did this in the safest possible measure.” She added, “I live in this community, too. So, it would be far fetched to put anyone in danger. I hope that would be dispelled over time.”