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Kevin O’Connor: Anti-energy protesters threat to first responders, taxpayers

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Pipeline protesters march through Minneapolis, Minn.

First responders work around the clock, keeping our communities safe, every day. They understand and accept the risks involved, as well as the long hours, rigorous physical requirements and constant training. However, many emergency workers are starting to face an unexpected hurdle and a new kind of threat: anti-energy protesters.

From New England to Louisiana, North Dakota to Virginia, Pennsylvania to Minnesota, anti-energy activists continue to escalate tactics, willing to do whatever it takes to impede the construction of lawfully permitted energy infrastructure projects.

In Pennsylvania, a group of protesters have continued to oppose the Mariner East 2 pipeline project. One woman set a fire near construction equipment and spread spoiled food around construction sites to attract wild animals.

Despite the numerous regulatory agencies ensuring a careful approval and construction process, protesters fervently press on, continuing to utilize tactics that risk their safety, as well as the safety and livelihood of construction workers, community members and local first responders.

In addition to posing a threat to themselves and innocent bystanders, anti-energy protesters’ actions often pull first responders off the street, forcing them to dedicate time and resources to cleaning up after their efforts and keeping them away from their other critical responsibilities in the community. First responders have a duty to protect and serve — but protesters take advantage of our essential emergency services at taxpayer expense.

Law enforcement in Louisiana have faced resistance from vigilante protesters in the swamps where the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is nearing completion. Throughout the past several months, protesters have chained themselves to equipment, scaled construction cranes, blocked access roads, fought with police and climbed up in trees directly in the path of construction and refused to come down.

In Minnesota, law enforcement recently spent nearly 2½ hours trying to disperse a crowd of more than 100 people who blocked streets in a small town to express their opposition to an oil line.

Then there were the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. In late 2016 and early 2017, protesters from around the country descended on North Dakota’s Morton County in an attempt to stop construction of the pipeline. Protesters used aggressive and violent tactics, including burning vehicles, building roadblocks and lighting them on fire, damaging bridges, and fighting with police. Law enforcement reinforcements were called in from around the country to assist. Police, fire, and cleanup costs are estimated to have cost the county nearly $40 million. Now, the pipeline has been safely operating for more than a year, carrying over 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day to consumers across the country.

Surely, freedom of speech and the right to assemble are critical bulwarks of our democracy, but there is an appropriate time and place for protest. Our economy, industry and local first responders are paying the price for anti-energy protesters’ tactics. Let’s put an end to these risky games before other innocent bystanders get hurt in the process.

Kevin O’Connor is a retired Baltimore County firefighter who also led the governmental affairs and public policy division of the International Association of Fire Fighters. He is associate editor of Firehouse Magazine.