Witnesses are being sought in connection with the protest Saturday that stopped traffic for an hour on northbound Interstate 5 through Bellingham, causing a 4-mile backup and a wreck that injured one person.
“Washington State Patrol detectives are seeking witnesses who directly observed the five vehicles that initially blocked traffic,” Trooper Heather Axtman said in a statement Wednesday. “They are also seeking witnesses who can help identify the protesters who were involved in this demonstration.”
Axtman said anyone with information about the protest should contact Detective Kevin Nelson at 360-654-1143.
Authorities are discussing whether charges can be filed against participants in the protest, which began about 12:30 p.m. Saturday as the cars slowed and stopped, blocking both northbound lanes of I-5 at milepost 253, near the Lakeway Drive exit ramp. Some 100 people joined the demonstration, which lasted until about 1:30 p.m., Axtman said.
Blocking a freeway is a gross misdemeanor, Axtman said.
Protesters held signs opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,172-mile oil pipeline being built from North Dakota to Illinois. The project has been controversial because of its potential environmental damage, and demonstrations against its final section near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation have drawn media attention. Recent action by President Donald Trump’s administration allowed the project to go forward last week, after it effectively had been scuttled under President Barack Obama.
Axtman said only two troopers were available to assess the situation on the freeway immediately, noting that the protest came without warning and it took about an hour to coordinate an appropriate police response. By the time enough troopers and other police officers prepared to make arrests, the protesters had dispersed.
“We had fairly limited resources at the time and we were waiting to make sure we had more police officers on scene,” Axtman told The Bellingham Herald on Saturday, adding that – for the sake of officers’ safety – a small group of troopers can’t arrest 100 demonstrators.
“When traffic started to flow following the demonstration, troopers responded to a five-car rollover collision about 3 miles south of milepost 253,” Axtman said in the statement Wednesday. “One person was taken to the hospital with minor injuries in that collision.”
Bellingham Herald reporter Robert Mittendorf is a volunteer firefighter with South Whatcom Fire Authority, one of the agencies that responded to Saturday’s wreck. He was not directly involved in that response.