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Oil protester contests $20,000 Coast Guard fine

Western student Chiara D'Angelo returns to Cornwall Beach to greet fellow activists after 63 hours harnessed to the Arctic Challenger's anchor chain. // Photo by Libby Keller
Western student Chiara D’Angelo returns to Cornwall Beach to greet fellow activists after 63 hours harnessed to the Arctic Challenger’s anchor chain. // Photo by Libby Keller

Chiara D’Angelo spent 63 hours hanging from the anchor chain of Shell Oil’s vessel, the Arctic Challenger, in May 2015. Her attorney is arguing that she serve 63 hours of community service, one for each hour spent on the anchor chain, rather than owing a $20,000 fine the U.S. Coast Guard cited her with. D’Angelo and her attorney presented those arguments at a Coast Guard tribunal hearing Monday morning, Feb 29.

The Arctic Challenger was a support vessel for Shell’s arctic drilling rig, the Polar Pioneer.

Shell abandoned the effort in September due in part to rapidly declining oil prices, according to The New York Times.

The tribunal was held in downtown Seattle at the Coast Guard headquarters with Commander Scott Klinke attending via telecom as the hearings officer.  

Near the end of the hearing, Klinke asked D’Angelo if she would pledge not to violate a Coast Guard safety zone again.

“I don’t want the attention. I just want the sea to be healthy,” D’Angelo said.

Amanda Schemkes, D’Angelo’s attorney, said in the hearing that D’Angelo should be penalized with 63 hours of community service for chaining herself to the anchor and violating the Coast Guard’s 100 yard safety zone around Shell’s Arctic Challenger on May 25 and 26.

The night before the tribunal, supporters met Chiara in front of the Coast Guard headquarters waving light-up salmon socks attached to sticks through the air. That night, Feb. 28, was D’Angelo’s 21st birthday.

“Chiara did a noble deed,” Susan Russell said. “Because she did what she did, it made a huge difference.”

Russell is a supporter of D’Angelo and an advocate for salmon as part of the Salmon is Life group. She also created the light-up salmon socks.

“I have no intention of entering a safety zone again,” D’Angelo said. She qualified the statement by saying the penalties did not inform this decision but rather it was a strategic personal decision for her life.

Klinke said he would reserve his decision until March 10 to allow time for further evidence and rebuttal comments to be sent and reviewed.

“The deck is stacked against us,” said Lauren Regan, D’Angelo’s attorney and the executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center. “We are in a military tribunal where a commander will be both the prosecutor and the judge.”

Regan said that if the fines are not dropped they will take the case to federal district courts and challenge the constitutionality of the tribunal proceedings.

D’Angelo’s defense focused on two main arguments.

The first point is a defense known as “necessity.” A necessity defense argues that an imminent harm necessitated illegal action. In D’Angelo’s case, Schemkes argued that drilling for oil is a major factor in climate change, and that the harms created by climate change necessitated action.

The necessity defense has been used before in the context of global warming by the “Delta 5”  group in Seattle, who blocked an oil train from leaving Everett.  The jury was instructed by the judge not to base their decision on the necessity argument. The group lost their case but were acquitted of their obstruction charge.

“Climate change has increased storms, fires, crops that may not grow [and] water-born diseases,” Schemkes said. “We can see the scary reality of climate change that we are already living.”

D’Angelo argued that there was a 75 percent chance of an oil spill in the arctic from Shell’s drilling.

The second point of D’Angelo’s defense was the difficulty to pay a $20,000 fine, since she is a college student already in debt.

“The Coast Guard determined that even though Chiara and I were both starving students that we could afford the $10,000 for my case and the $20,000 for her case,” Matt Fuller said.

According to a previous Western Front article, Fuller spent 24 hours chained to the ship.

Debra D’Angelo, Chiara’s mother, and Paul Adler were at the anchor to support Chiara and Fuller. They face fines of about $5,000 in total for violating the safety zone.

Debra D’Angelo testified at the hearing that Chiara was facing heavy student loans. She also said that the Lummi tribe had honored Chiara with a blanket for her actions.

Klinke pointed out that one could get permission to enter the safety zone by consulting a Coast Guard district commander. Klinke asked D’Angelo why she hadn’t done so.
Regan answered by saying most private citizens were not aware of that stipulation and it was likely that access would not have been granted even if D’Angelo had consulted the district commander.

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