Public Hearing on HB 4615: Comments from OVEC’s ED

Nearly two dozen people commented at the February 10 public hearing on HB 4615, a version of one of ALEC’s assorted anti-protest laws. Three industry representatives made comments along the lines of “don’t worry, trust us” and 23 spoke in opposition to the bill, including Vivian Stockman, OVEC’s executive director.  She delivered an abbreviated version of the comments below.

Update: On Feb. 13, an amended version of HB 4615 passed out of the House on a 60-35 vote. Now it is on to the Senate. Watch our website for updates.

Comments from OVEC’s ED
My name is Vivian Stockman. I’m executive director of OVEC, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, which is based in Huntington, West Virginia.

Even though many legislators apparently do not care to be here, I am grateful they have allowed this public hearing on the so-called “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act.” If we had truth-in-labeling requirements for bills, this one might be more accurately called “The Chill, Muzzle and Exterminate Critical Protest and Dissent Act.”

Like the right to speak in public hearings and the right to vote, the right to peacefully assemble and protest is critical and foundational to democracy. It gives we, the everyday people, a means to have our government hear us, to know that we are demanding protection of our air, land, water, property rights, and basic human rights.

Protest gave us some advancement in worker’s rights, women’s rights, and civil rights. Without protest, this country might not even exist—you know, the Boston tea party, which took place in a port, which would be defined as critical infrastructure under HB 4615.

But how much of our history do we really know, do we sometimes celebrate and sometimes confront, and do we learn from? Not much if bills like these can see the light of day.   

Right now, at the local, state and national level we appear bitterly divided. This bill will not help this. We are not publicly admitting that the past shapes our present. To improve the future we must recognize that we stand on ground stolen from this continent’s original inhabitants. We live in a country shaped from brutal genocide and slavery. We live in a country where leaders who try to organize ordinary people across lines of race and class are shot down. The impacts of these practices and institutions are with us now.  

Protest has been a way for us to lift up what is unjust in our country and try to make it better. Some of the strongest defenders of America and democracy have been some of the most marginalized and oppressed people.

This bill seeks to further marginalize and criminalize those who dare to try right wrongs. This bill seeks to protect corporations over people, aims to protect those whose pollution trespasses on public health and safety, whose pollution trespasses into our air, water, land, and bodies, and whose actions trespass upon our property rights, and who, with this bill seek to trespass on our right to protest those very trespasses.

Bills like HB 4615 have been popping up in State Houses around the nation. The templates for these types of bills come from a group called ALEC, American Legislative Exchange Council. The Koch brother billionaires are huge funders of ALEC. Many other corporations also fund ALEC.

These billionaire entities apparently don’t have enough. Since 2017, more than 106 wholly un-American bills have been introduced in 36 states that would seek to chill and criminalize protest in one form or another.

These bills have disproportionately targeted communities of color and other marginalized communities. For example, bills raising criminal penalties for protesting on highways have targeted Black Lives Matter; bills preventing protest at so-called “critical infrastructure” sites have targeted pipeline protesters, and Native American water defenders; and so-called “Campus Free Speech Bills” have targeted student movements against white supremacy. Already, bills have passed in several states. These unconstitutional bills, when passed, are being challenged as court at great cost to all parties involved. At least one has already been struck down.

Why waste our time and money with HB 4615? 

Among the so-called critical infrastructure sites defined by this bill are those that deal with natural gas liquids, compressor stations, pipelines and natural—well really fracked—gas storage facilities. This is aimed at stomping out dissent over the so-called Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub, which as yet is for the most part only a proposal, but which would be a massive petrochemical complex build out in our region, like that suffered by our fellow Americans in Cancer Alley Louisiana and around petrochemical plant fenceline communities in the Houston area. This Hub would be a petrochemical complex, and plastic would be its main end product. The petrochemical buildout would be fed by a massive regional increase in fracking, and require major pipelines, thousands of miles of feeder pipelines, cracker and fractionator plants, and underground storage of volatile natural gas liquids.

This bill is aimed at silencing groups like OVEC that think this petrochemical scheme for West Virginia’s future is not the future we want. Should we be criminals for saying so  in the streets and on the fencelines?

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