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Coast Guard could fine Bellingham Shell protesters

In this Friday, May 22, 2015 photo provided by Reese Semanko, the Coast Guard stands by as a woman identified as Chiara D’Angelo has suspended herself in a climbing harness from the anchor chain of the Royal Dutch Shell support ship Arctic Challenger in the harbor at Bellingham, Wash.
In this Friday, May 22, 2015 photo provided by Reese Semanko, the Coast Guard stands by as a woman identified as Chiara D’Angelo has suspended herself in a climbing harness from the anchor chain of the Royal Dutch Shell support ship Arctic Challenger in the harbor at Bellingham, Wash. AP

The Coast Guard is seeking fines against four protestors who approached or attached themselves to Shell’s Arctic Challenger in Bellingham Bay.

Two of the protestors, Chiara D’Angelo and Matthew Fuller, clipped onto the oil spill response vessel’s anchor chain at various times between May 22 and 24. D’Angelo stayed on the chain for three nights, while Fuller joined her for part of one night. Both were eventually assisted down from the chain by the Coast Guard.

During the three-day protest, geared against Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic, Cody Erdman and Paul Adler also drove boats or rafts into the 100-yard safety zone the Coast Guard had set up around the ship. Erdman also was on the anchor chain at one point, said Lt. Dana Warr, a Coast Guard spokesman.

Each person could face up to $40,000 in fines for each time the safety zone was crossed or each day they spent inside the zone. The safety zone was put in place because interference with the ship had the potential to result in serious injury, death or pollution in the highly sensitive ecosystem, according to the Coast Guard.

“The Coast Guard supports and defends the rights of the public to assemble peacefully and protest; however, prolonged violations of the safety zones tax Coast Guard resources and crews hindering the Service's ability to quickly respond to mariners in distress or other life-threatening emergencies,” said Capt. Joe Raymond, commander of Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound and captain of the port. “Most importantly, prolonged safety violations unnecessarily put protesters and law enforcement personnel at risk due to rapidly changing environmental conditions, fatigue and marine traffic.”

Five people who were passengers on the boats driven by Erdman and Adler also were given tickets, which can carry about a $500 fine, Warr said.

Many of the people on boats that crossed the safety zone were there to support D’Angelo.

“To have somebody hanging from the chain of a ship like that for a really long time is inspiring, but in some ways you’ve got to be safe,” said 23-year-old Ty Campbell, who was cited for taking his sailboat into the safety zone. “We had boats out there the entire time to give her emotional support and physical support.”

Over the course of that weekend, 50 different Coast Guard crew members on seven different boats were involved in the response. There were no plans to seek compensation for those operating expenses, according to the agency.

In addition to a violation for crossing into the safety zone, D’Angelo could face fines for dropping a radio, sleeping bag and other items in the water, Warr said.

D’Angelo also was issued a trespass warning by Bellingham Police Department, which was only a caution she could be arrested if she returned to the property, said Lt. Bob Vander Yacht, police spokesman.

The ship, a barge-mounted oil well blowout containment system, has since left Bellingham. Shell did not return several phone calls made over multiple days seeking information on where the ship is headed.

The case against the protestors will now be assigned to a hearing officer in the Coast Guard Hearing Office in Arlington, Va. The officer will work independently and directly with each of the protestors, offering each person the chance to dispute the claims and provide evidence on their behalf, Warr said.

“At the end of that process, the hearing officer will make a final decision,” Warr said. “We’ve written the violations up, presented it, and then it will be handled separately and independently from us here in Seattle.”

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

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