Tar Sands Activists Facing Felony Charges Have Their Day in Court
January court appearances brought a rare victory for tar sands protestor Chris Wahmhoff whose felony charges were dismissed, while felony charges stuck for Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands members Barb Carter, Vicci Hamlin, Lisa Leggio and William Lawrence. Their cases will be heard by a jury on Jan. 27.
Jan. 13 Brings a Rare Victory for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience
Michigan's Calhoun County Circuit Court was filled with a collective “Whoo!” on Monday, Jan. 13, as supporters of tar sands activist Christopher Wahmhoff let loose a collective whoop of relief when Judge James C. Kingsley declared that he was granting Wahmhoff’s and National Lawyer’s Guild attorney John Royal’s motion to quash felony charges related to Wahmhoff’s June 2013 occupation of Enbridge’s tar sands pipeline in Michigan. It was a moment when supporters couldn’t help reacting. “Justice has been served,” one woman said.
Wahmhoff, who grew up “a football field’s distance away” from the Kalamazoo River, experienced the 2010 tar sands oil spill and what he refers to as Enbridge’s dangerous and misleading handling of ongoing clean-up efforts. He’s active with MICATS, a group of people from Detroit, Kalamazoo and across the state who have embraced the motto: “If you want to protect your community, you have to do it yourself.”
On June 24, 2013, Wahmhoff walked up to the unfenced pipeline in Fredonia Township, pulled off the aluminum cover that was held in place only by duct tape, and quietly rolled in on a skateboard. The board, he explained, allowed him to roll deep into the pipe and to keep moving if there were attempts to remove him.
The day happened to be Wahmhoff’s 35th birthday, but that was not the convergence MICATS wanted to highlight. The plan was to call attention to what Enbridge was doing in the wake of the original 30” 6B pipeline blow out that spilled 1.2 million gallons of tars sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010.
“They weren’t fixing the old line,” Wahmhoff said. “They were running new 36” pipe side-by-side with the old 30” pipe.” Enbridge has claimed that they will decommission the old pipe, but residents watching a whole new trench take up more and more land, expressed concern that Enbridge could use both old and new lines.
“They could pump tar sands oil one way and the refining chemicals the other way.”
What’s equally alarming, Wahmhoff noted, is that Enbridge is planning to use another aging 30” pipe, the Line 5 pipeline lying along the lake bed parallel to the Mackinac Bridge, to transport tar sands oil across the straights of Mackinac.
“Line 5 is a decades-old pipe that was designed to carry gas, not oil,” said Wahmhoff. “Enbridge plans to increase pressure and load in all of these pipelines from 240,000 barrels per day to 500-800,000 barrels per day.
“If that line leaks or blows out, that’s the drinking water for 25 million people.”
Wahmhoff’s case came before Circuit Judge James C. Kingsley on a daily docket that included three additional Enbridge cases. As Wahmhoff’s lawyer, Royal, began arguments, Judge Kingsley noted a Michigan Supreme Court case that he believed was strongly related. Dismissing both attorneys to read up on the case, the Judge called “Enbridge vs. Fredonia Farms,” a case involving the family farmland that served as staging grounds for Enbridge’s clean-up of the tar sands oil spill in 2010.
While legal counsel for Fredonia Farms and Enbridge made their way before the Judge, Kingsley offered his own “testimony” of sorts, explaining that the Circuit Court had two judges who heard 900 felony cases in 2012 and as many in 2013. Fredonia Farms claimed that Enbridge had abandoned their original land use agreement and “repeatedly shut down communications.” Enbridge asserted that they needed access to more land to perform state-ordered tests. The Judge, recalling those 900 felony cases a year, hailed the case “another example of ‘Can’t we talk.’”
In the end, Enbridge was granted access, again, to the Zinn family’s land, but Judge Kingsley made it clear that his ruling was “narrow.” Enbridge would be allowed to do soil bore tests, but testing must be completed within nine months, and if Enbridge violated land access terms, the court would grant Fredonia Farms an emergency hearing.
With Wahmhoff’s case back before the bench, Judge Kingsley dissected the language in a Supreme Court ruling that determined, in Michigan, that direct physical force was not required to substantiate a felony charge of “Resisting and Obstructing” a police officer. The Judge then cited snippets of dialogue between Wahmhoff and Officer Steven Hinkley on the day of the pipeline protest, taking listeners on a language and semantics ride that hinged, in the end, on verb tense. Yes, Wahmhoff indicated, while inside the pipe, that he knew he was going to be arrested when he came out, but Wahmhoff also stated that he was going to willingly come out of the pipe at 5 p.m. that day. After skateboarding in before 7 a.m., his plan was to stop Enbridge’s work for one day.
Focusing on the “future tense” of their discussions and the lack of a clear order or command, Judge Kingsley arrived at a closing that said, essentially, in the absence of a clear and unequivocal order for Wahmhoff to come out and that he was under arrest (verses would be arrested), “The motion to quash is granted.”
Attorney Royal, speaking outside the courtroom immediately after the Judge gaveled for a recess to bring the noisy courtroom under control, called the decision a “victory for civil disobedience.” Acknowledging the collective whoop as “a bit out of line,” he also said it was “good for judges to hear the community’s support,” and that nature itself may have played a role.
“You could say,” Royal noted, that with four Enbridge cases on the day’s docket, two judges to hear 900 felony cases and a winter storm that placed Wahmhoff’s act of passive resistance in a rather poetic place—rescheduled from Jan. 6 and sandwiched between Enbridge cases on Jan. 13—that “with 900 murder, rape and assault charges each year, why are we prosecuting civil disobedience?”
Jan. 15: One Quash Does Not Lead to Another
For four additional MICATS facing similar charges days later, the tone in the courtroom was decidedly different.
"I'm a trial judge who is ready to try these cases," announced Michigan's Ingham County Circuit Judge William Collette as he denied attorney Robert Gaecke's motion to quash felony charges against MICATS members Barbara Carter, Vicci Hamlin, Lisa Leggio and William Lawrence.
"I am sick of people trying to use my courtroom for publicity,” Collette said, though he mentioned prior drilling permits the court had stopped, calling himself “sympathetic to the cause.” “But,” he continued, “stopping Enbridge will not cause the oil industry to change its mind."
"Caring shouldn't be a felony," one of twenty supporters in the courtroom said, referring to the defendants’ actions on July 22 when they locked themselves to construction equipment on an Enbridge pipeline expansion site in Stockbridge, MI.
Barb Carter, in a statement regarding the lock down, wrote: "I took the action I did because I am an extremely concerned citizen of the world. I know in my heart that if we do not change our ways, the outcome will be tragic.”
Reactions to the Judge's ruling ranged from anger to disappointment, though there was little surprise from MICATS defendants and supporters.
"We knew all along this was going to trial," Hamlin said. Frustration was directed at the judge's comments that the defendants were seeking publicity for themselves. "I could do a lot of things to get publicity that didn't involve three years of prison time," Leggio remarked.
Hamlin firmly disagreed with Judge Collette’s assertion that their actions would make no difference.
"I think we're going to make a big difference," she said confidently. "If laws are unjust, people have to go against them and I'm willing to pay the consequences for that. More people need to, and more will. Any person who's ever made a change risked something."
While attorney Gaecke prepares an emergency injunction before the trial, set for Jan. 27, Wahmhoff, who learned between the two hearings that the prosecutor’s office has re-filed felony charges against him, said he was glad “there was a moment of elation. It’s rare as an activist to get those moments.”
Update: As of Jan. 17, Wahmhoff's attorney, John Royal, has confirmed that the prosecution has filed a Motion for Reconsideration of Judge Kingsley's Jan. 13 decision.
Visit EcoWatch’s TAR SANDS page for more related news on this topic.
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From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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