Opinion: Protesters risk safety of first responders

Kevin O’Connor

When taking the job, first responders understand the risks involved, the long hours, rigorous physical requirements, and constant training. However, many of our emergency workers are starting to face an unexpected hurdle and a new kind of threat: anti-energy protesters.

Protesters assemble before the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline public information session at Holt High School on Thursday, July 6, 2017 in Holt, Mich. The report by Dynamic Risk Assessment Systems, Inc. was prepared independently for the state of Michigan.

From New England to Louisiana, North Dakota to Virginia and Pennsylvania to Minnesota, anti-energy activists continue to escalate tactics, willing to do whatever it takes to impede the construction of lawfully permitted energy infrastructure projects. Here in Michigan, a group of activists are camping in the woods south of Mackinaw City to protest an oil pipeline crossing the Straits of Mackinac. Pulling from the playbook of other high-profile protests, these activists have made it clear they will do whatever it takes to shut down the pipeline.

Despite the numerous regulatory agencies ensuring a careful approval and construction process, protesters fervently press on, continuing to utilize tactics that risk their safety, as well as the safety and livelihood of construction workers, community members and local first responders.

In addition to posing a threat to themselves and other innocent bystanders, anti-energy protesters and their risky theatrics pull first responders off the street, forcing them to dedicate time and resources to cleaning up after their efforts. First responders have a duty to protect and serve — but protester antics take advantage of our essential emergency services at taxpayer expense.

For example, law enforcement in Louisiana have faced resistance from vigilante protesters in the swamps where the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is nearing completion. Throughout the past several months, protesters have chained themselves to equipment, scaled construction cranes, blocked access roads, fought with police and climbed trees directly in the path of construction and refused to come down. Many of these desperate tactics have required first responders to tend to protesters, keeping them away from their other critical responsibilities throughout the community.

In Pennsylvania, a group of protesters has continued to oppose the Mariner East 2 Pipeline project. One elderly woman even went as far as to set fire near construction equipment and spread spoiled food around construction sites to attract wild animals. And in Minnesota, more than 100 people recently blocked streets in a small town to express their opposition to an oil line, as law enforcement spent nearly two and a half hours trying to disperse the crowd.

Of course there was also the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. In late 2016 and early 2017, protesters from around the country descended on Morton County, North Dakota, in an attempt to stop construction of the pipeline. Protesters used aggressive and violent tactics, including burning vehicles, building road blocks and lighting them on fire, damaging bridges, and fighting with police. Law enforcement reinforcements were called in from around the country to assist. Police, fire and cleanup are estimated to have cost the county nearly $40 million. Now, the pipeline has been safely operating for more than a year, carrying over 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day to consumers across the country.

These are just a few examples of activist efforts that have pulled first responders off the street at taxpayer expense. Surely, freedom of speech and the right to assemble are critical bulwarks of our democracy, but there is an appropriate time and place for protest. Our economy, industry, and local first responders have already started to pay the price of anti-energy antics. Let’s put an end to these risky games before other innocent bystanders get hurt in the process, too.

Kevin O’Connor is a retired Baltimore County firefighter who also led the Governmental Affairs and Public Policy Division of the International Association of Fire Fighters.