Although the group was determined to defend their actions in a jury trial, Chittenden County State’s Attorney Thomas J. Donovan unexpectedly dropped the remaining charges against the group on Friday.
“The State gave no explanation,” Plainfield resident Karen Starr said, “but it seems clever to avoid the spectacle of putting seniors on trial for defending future generations and the planet.” Starr was one of 6 arrested after the group locked themselves to the gates of the Williston staging area that is a base of operations for Vermont Gas Systems’ controversial fracked gas pipeline.
Individuals in similar cases have been sentenced with fines, community service and probation, and charges have only been dropped in one other case involving Monkton landowner Jane Palmer.
“It’s unclear whether this latest move to drop charges indicates the state is taking a more favorable view on climate activism, or that Donovan’s campaign for Attorney General is impacting their decision,” Lindsey Gillies, a volunteer organizer with Rising Tide Vermont and a Vermont Gas ratepayer, said.
“This exoneration is something of a success, but we’re not done fighting for the future” Ulrike von Moltke said. “We are considering what our next moves should be, but we are not easily intimidated”.
The group’s charges were dropped “without prejudice” meaning the state could choose to refile the charges at any point within the next year.
Peggy Benoit, of Mohwak heritage, said, “I have a moral obligation, a sacred responsibility to protect Mother Earth and her children not yet born.” Benoit was one of those arrested in September.
The Williston 6 are particularly concerned about this pipeline because it is an expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and would increase the use of fracked gas in the state. “Fracked methane, also known as natural gas, is not only not clean and safe, as VT Gas would like us to believe , but it is actually many times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide during the first 10-20 years of its release to the atmosphere,” Sharon resident Douglas Smith said. “New peer-reviewed studies from Harvard University demonstrate that methane leaks from fracking in the United States alone are far larger and more extensive than the US EPA or the industry have been willing to admit. This is devastating news and completely scuttles the notion that fracked gas is a ‘transition’ fuel to a renewable energy future.”
Smith is the partner of the late Nina Swaim. They were both arrested in September, but Swaim passed away in October.
“We have an obligation to be stewards of the climate that my grandchildren depend on because elected officials are not fulfilling their legal duty as trustees of our commons for present and future generations,” he said.
The Williston 6 are Fred Wolfe, 85, of Strafford, Vt.; Ulrike von Moltke, 71, of Sharon, Vt.; Karen Starr, 63, of Plainfield, Vt.; Peggy Benoit, 62, of Rutland, Vt.; Doug Smith, 75, of Sharon, Vt.; Nina Swaim, of Sharon, Vt.
The Williston 6 are the 5 surviving members of a group of elders who continue to refer to themselves as “the Williston 6” in a gesture of affection for their late comrade, Eleanor “Nina” Swaim. Nina died last October, shortly after declaring her intentions to take the case to trial with her co-defendants.