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Earth First! Protest Shuts Down Seneca

Lane County Sheriff officers cut loose a protester locked down to a truck dump at Seneca’s Biomass Plant
Lane County Sheriff officers cut loose a protester locked down to a truck dump at Seneca’s Biomass Plant

With banners reading “Buy the Elliott State Forest, Expect Resistance” and “Stop this ecocide,” protesters organized by Earth First! and Cascadia Forest Defenders descended upon Seneca Sustainable Energy on the morning of July 7 to call attention to what they say is the company’s pollution in a low-income area and clearcut logging in the Elliott State Forest.

A group of protesters entered the biomass-burning plant in the morning, dropping a banner and locking themselves down to a conveyor belt and a truck dump, temporarily shutting the plant down, according to Forest Defender Cordelia Finley. Dozens of protesters (police estimated as many as 100) chanted and held signs outside.

Three activists that entered the plant were later arrested according to the Lane County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO), one of the many agencies that responded to the protesters. Ben Jones, Richard Hayley and Chad Kemp of Eugene were arrested on charges including trespass and disorderly conduct.

Sgt. Greg Rice of the LCSO says 18 county staff members responded to the protest. The Eugene Police Department also sent officers and vehicles, as did the fire department and Oregon State Police. EPD spokeswoman Melinda McLaughlin says the agency sent 45 units because the protest was “initially reported to be more than 200 protesters fighting with employees,” the scope of the property and “the unpredictable nature of large group protests.”

Finley calls the Seneca-Jones companies “bad neighbors” for the plant’s emissions of air toxins into the West Eugene community and its nearby schools. She says Seneca is also a bad neighbor for its role in the privatization of the Elliott State Forest. The state of Oregon has begun selling parcels of the public forest and Seneca-Jones Timber purchased 788 acres called East Hakki Ridge, Finley says, not only shutting the land down to recreation but also endangering the federally protected marbled murrelets that Coast Range Forest Watch documented as nesting in the trees. Cascadia Wildlands and other environmental groups have sued over the timber sale.

 Seneca-Jones co-owner Kathy Jones (or as the company calls them, one of the “Jones girls”) raised hackles when she told The Oregonian that the company didn’t need the timber from East Hakki and submitted the bid because “eco--radical” environmental groups had promised lawsuits to protect the marbled murrelet.

Todd Payne, Seneca’s general manager, says, “this is a radical group of activists who are obstructing the everyday activities of working Oregonians at a family-owned business.”

Interaction between protesters and law enforcement was largely peaceful, and the protest was watched over by legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild and the Eugene-based Civil Liberties Defense Center. The protest concluded after the protesters locked down in the plant were cut loose and arrested and law enforcement told the outside protesters to clear the street or risk being cited for trespass.

Lauren Regan of the CLDC, who observed the protest, says, “Public right-of-ways are protected First Amendment areas and cops can’t just clear the streets because they feel like it, and no one in the public demonstration was doing anything illegal — just peacefully exercising First Amendment rights.” 

Rice says protesters “cannot block the flow of traffic and block the entrances to businesses.” While protesters did gather at Seneca’s gates, they stayed off the roadway and it was the police who set up roadblocks on each end of East Enid Road.

Regan commented that perhaps “Seneca-Jones should build a free speech zone outside their facility because the public is outraged at the threats to human health and detrimental climate impacts caused by their profit-driven actions and lawful protests are sure to be a regular occurrence at the plant.” — Camilla Mortensen