Dangling from a trestle, protesters provoke police

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Photo from Hudson Valley Earth First!
Back to earth: Following an oil-train protest on Saturday, Maeve McBride comes down from the train trestle at French’s Hollow, to face arrest for trespassing and other charges.

by Elizabeth Floyd Mair

 

GUILDERLAND — Police say they performed a rescue from the railroad trestle at French’s Hollow in Guilderland Center on Saturday afternoon.

Activist Marisa Shea calls it an extraction.

Shea, 30, of Lowell, Massachusetts was one of five people protesting the oil trains that haul fossil fuel, fracked in South Dakota, to refineries along the East Coast, passing through Voorheesville, Guilderland Center, Guilderland, and Albany, among many other towns and cities, on the way.

In 2013, an oil train derailed in Quebec’s Lac-Mégantic, causing an explosion and a fire that leveled several square blocks and killed 47 people, raising awareness about the dangers.

The five people arrested in Guilderland — Shea; Maeve McBride, 40, from Vermont; Alexander Lundberg, 32, from Minnesota; Rachel Kijewski, 31, from Florida; and Jordan Davis, 27, from Windsor, New York — coordinated their protest with a larger demonstration in Albany.

McBride and Shea are accused of rappelling from the train tracks and trestle that rise about 40 feet above the Watervliet Reservoir, suspending themselves above the water.

All five of the protesters were charged with unlawful interference with a railroad train, fifth-degree conspiracy, and third-degree criminal trespass. Shea, who police say refused to come down when ordered to, also faces charges of reckless endangerment.

The issue that they were protesting feels very personal to her, McBride said, since most of her extended family lives along the Hudson River, within several miles of what she calls “the bomb trains.”

“We use the term ‘bomb train,’” McBride said, “to indicate how explosive the material is. It’s being transported in tank cars that were never intended to carry hazardous material. And because it’s unrefined — a mixture of oil, gas, and fracking fluids — it’s a nasty toxic slew that is more flammable than, say, refined oil.”

Shea, who teaches eighth-grade math — and also teaches climate change — at a public middle school, believes that Saturday’s protest shows the power of ordinary people to stop oil trains from running.

She hopes that more and more people will be willing to put their bodies at risk in order to prevent fossil fuels from reaching their destination and from being burned. She said, “I think if we scale up this model, it could be really effective.”

Shea told The Enterprise, “It’s ironic that we’re seen as extreme or radical, when really the radical thing is destroying the entire planet.”

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Photo by Ellen Leren
Faces of the future: Maeve McBride often brings her sons, Phinneas Clason, 9, and Spencer Clason, 5, with her to protests. She wants them to grow up seeing people taking risks to ensure the health of the planet that they will inherit.

For the police and first responders who arrived on the scene Saturday, human safety was of paramount importance.

Sergeant Carl Duda of the Guilderland Police, the shift supervisor on Saturday afternoon, said that police did not know at first that the people on the trestle were activists. “We didn’t know what their agenda was,” Duda said. “We were trying to coax to come down on their own free will,” at first, he said.

“A couple of them were documenting, taking video and pictures. Officers were able to get one female down off her rope and her harness. There was one that refused to come down. She first claimed that her rope was too short. We believe that actually she was tweeting out, trying to get people to come and observe what was going on.”

Police didn’t realize that they were activists, Duda said, until they got three people out of the area and back to the spot where police had set up a command post and spoke with them.

First responders were very concerned about injury, Duda said. They had police there, firefighters on top of the trestle, and emergency medical staff staged in the area. “We were actually very concerned, because if someone did fall, there’s a great risk of injury,” he said.

One firefighter did receive a minor injury, Duda said, when he hit his back on the bridge as he was rappelling down.

The protest also tied up all of Guilderland’s police resources for hours, Duda said. “Basically our entire shift was tied up with the rescue operation, and then we had officers who were tied up because they had to transport the five individuals … to our station.”

Deputy Chief Curtis Cox said that there have been a number of protests in Guilderland in the past, often involving labor issues. He said, “People have usually been within their rights to assemble and had their protest within the law, and there’s been no issue.”

In fact, people planning protests often meet with police in advance, he said, to ensure that there will be no problem.

Cox emphasized that railroad property is off-limits. “It’s trespassing; you cannot be on or within so many feet of the railroad tracks, and then when you get up on a railroad trestle like that, that’s very high, it’s very dangerous. So nobody should be trespassing anywhere near those trestles or railroad tracks or anything.”

McBride’s view of safety is larger — it encompasses the future of the planet.

 

 

Photo by Ellen Leren

Faces of the future: Maeve McBride often brings her sons, Phinneas Clason, 9, and Spencer Clason, 5, with her to protests. She wants them to grow up seeing people taking risks to ensure the health of the planet that they will inherit.

 

Valedictorian of her Troy High School Class of 1993, she went on to get a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering and work as an engineer. She now serves as executive director of the environmental activism group, 350 Vermont. As an engineer, McBride’s field of study was rivers and streams, and she feels a particular connection to the impact of climate change on waterways.

And to the impact of oil trains, too. When the trains are crossing over or near waterways, she says, they have a potentially huge impact. She notes that one-third of the Watervliet Reservoir lies within the immediate half-mile-wide area that would be evacuated in the case of a derailment, and another third lies within the potential mile-wide impact zone.

The Watervliet Reservoir, she pointed out, provides drinking water for the town of Guilderland.

She mentioned an interactive website that makes these questions more real. This site, which can be located by searching online for “oil train blast zone,” shows a map of the trains’ route across the country. By putting in any zip code, visitors can see how close an area lies to the impact zone.

She also wants to draw attention to what she calls “environmental racism,” in which it is “often areas of color that are affected.” She points out that the Ezra Prentice subsidized family housing complex on South Pearl Street is just feet from the train tracks, as is the complex’s playground. The Albany County executive held a press conference at the complex, pointing out the same dangers and inequities.

McBride’s faith also plays into her activism. She is a lay worship leader at her Unitarian church in Burlington. One of the tenets of Unitarian Universalist belief, she said, is faith in “the interdependent web of all existence.” We are all connected to the natural world, she says, and to other people, and our actions have an impact on that whole web.

She brought her two young sons with her to Albany, although not to Guilderland Center. She, her husband, and the children took part in a related “kayak flotilla” on the Hudson River Friday evening and her family took part in the large march through Albany on Saturday that was also meant to draw attention to the oil trains.

What McBride hopes to teach her kids, she says, is “that there are people, including myself, who are willing to take risks to ensure that their future is one in which they have a clean and healthy environment to live in.”

The activists and at least some of the first responders are likely to meet again: in Guilderland Town Court on May 26, at 5:30 p.m.

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