Photo by DUSTIN SLAUGHTER
BY DUSTIN SLAUGHTER & KENNETH LIPP More than 100 activists blockaded three entrances of the Federal building at 6th and Market streets today as part of a nationwide campaign to pressure President Obama to block construction of the last leg of Keystone Pipeline construction. The demonstration was mounted by of a coalition of environmental groups including Earth Quaker Action Team, Rising Tide Philadelphia, 350 Philadelphia, and Be the Change. Today’s action resulted in 24 arrests, although 23 were cited on misdemeanor obstruction charges and released. One man faces felony charges for allegedly assaulting a federal officer.
The protest grew tense for a brief moment after two federal officers grabbed a woman by her hair and threw her to the ground during the blockade. The male facing assault charges, aged 70, grew upset and, according to eyewitnesses, threw a sandwich at the officers.
Protesters detained by officers were quickly replaced by a new group of blockaders, which prompted police to then set up barricades to prevent more from standing in front of the entrances. However, activists climbed over barricades to continue the protest. Law enforcement eventually “threw their hands up” and left the scene, according to a legal observer, after a rabbi identified as Arthur Wasskow slipped under the barricades towards the end of the action.
The Federal building in Philadelphia houses a satellite office of the State Department, an agency that has drawn strong criticism for its ties to pipeline company TransCanada. Last month, the State Department released an environmental assessment stating that the pipeline would not have a “significant” impact on greenhouse gas emissions. The validity of the reports conclusion has come into question given that a TransCanada contractor was closely involved in crafting the report.
If completed, the Keystone Pipeline would pump over 830,000 gallons of heavy crude from Alberta, Canada to Texas refineries on the Gulf Coast every day. Activists here and across the country clearly feel a sense of urgency, particularly in light of serious incidents like the recent Exxon crude spill in Arkansas, an event the EPA characterized as “major.” Similar spills have occurred in Utah at a rate of three times a year since 2010. A 2011 Montana spill dumped 63,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River.
As these spills continue to occur — and undoubtedly will again if TransCanada’s pipeline receives the green light from President Obama — the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Agency has come under increased scrutiny from activists and watchdog organizations, who charge that PHMSA lacks the necessary number of inspectors, and doesn’t have the resources to hire more. In the absence of a sufficient number of inspectors, oil companies will be left to inspect themselves. A late April deadline has been set for President Obama make a decision on whether pipeline construction will continue.