Climate Activists Who Chained Themselves To Tracks Head To Court

Jan 11, 2016

Five environmental activists who chained themselves to train tracks in Everett to protest oil and coal trains begin trial in Snohomish County District Court on Monday.

The activists face criminal charges alleging they trespassed on BNSF Railway property and blocked an oil train for eight hours on Sept. 2, 2014.

More than 100 people gathered at the Woodland Park Presbyterian Church in Seattle Sunday for a special climate justice service and blessing on the activists, who refer to themselves as the “Delta 5” (after the BNSF Delta railyard in Everett where they erected their human blockade). Several members of the Delta 5 attended the service.

The trial is drawing national attention because it’s believed to be the first allowing a “necessity defense” for climate-related civil disobedience. The judge has ruled that the defendants can argue that their actions were justified because of the threat of climate change.

A documentary crew is on site to record the trial, and activists who have committed acts of climate disobedience elsewhere in the country have come to show support.

Jay O’Hara, a sail maker from Massachusetts who attended the service on Sunday, made headlines in 2013 when he and a friend used their 32-foot lobster boat to block a ship from delivering 40,000 tons of coal to the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Massachusetts.

On the day of the trial, Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter dropped the criminal charges because he said he sympathized with the need for stronger action on climate change.

Abby Brockway, right, a member of the Delta 5, sings with pastor Staci Imes at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church in Seattle. Brockway and four other activists face criminal charges for blocking BNSF Railway tracks in 2014.
Credit EarthFix Photo/Ashley Ahearn

Standing outside the sanctuary at the Woodland Park Presbyterian Church, O’Hara said he’s here to support the Delta 5.

“All these folks have gotten to the point of, ‘What else are we to do?’ because our government and our economic institutions are not seriously grappling with this problem, so it seems to fall to us to put ourselves in the way of the machine,” O’Hara said.  

Michael Lapointe, one of the Delta 5 who co-owns a coffee shop in Everett and attended the Sunday service, said it took him 1/100th of a second to say yes when he was asked to participate in the train blockade.

Lapointe has been an activist for years in the traditional definition of the word, he said, “carrying signs, picketing, writing letters.” But he said the threat of climate change is so urgent that stronger action was necessary.

“It’s like we’re running a race, and when we take off, we know we have a certain amount of time to win. But with this problem of global warming the finish line is getting closer and closer,” Lapointe said. “If we don’t come in first there is no second place. We lose, and we lose seriously.”

Abby Brockway, a house painter in Seattle and member of the Delta 5, gave the sermon on Sunday and reflected on what she called her “radical” decision to block the oil train in Everett.

“We felt we had to trespass on those who are trespassing against us because we saw no other thing we could do to stop what is happening to this generation that will come after us,” Brockway said. When an oil train derailed in Seattle in 2014 a mile from her daughter’s school, Brockway said, she knew she had to take action. She’s not afraid of going to court this week, she said.

“The thing I’m most afraid of is telling my daughter years later that I didn’t try hard enough to protect her future.”

The Delta 5 activists blocked an oil train at BNSF Railway’s Delta Railyard in Everett for eight hours in Sept. 2014.
Credit Rising Tide Seattle

Gus Melonas, spokesman for BNSF, said actions like this can have a big effect on a rail system beyond one oil train.

"One train can be millions in revenue," he said. "When you have a backup on a system, this impacts yard activity, the ports are impacted from ships, then you have passenger and commuter (traffic) in the corridor. It’s a time-sensitive, very busy terminal area. We can’t tolerate it. They can voice their opinion, but we don’t want them on our property. We’re trying to conduct our business." 

(The Delta 5 are: Abby Brockway, Michael Lapointe, Patrick Mazza, Jackie Minchew and Liz Spoerri.)