By February 11, 2020 Read More →

West Virginia House of Delegates’ Public Hearing on HB 4615 brings opinions on public safety, public freedoms

By Crystal Good

For West Virginia Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Opinions on public safety and public freedoms were expressed Monday, Feb. 10 during a public hearing on HB 4615 in the West Virginia House of Delegates Chamber.

Titled “The West Virginia Critical Infrastructure Protection Act,” the bill seeks to create new criminal and civil penalties for individuals and organizations found guilty of criminal conduct during demonstrations that cause damage to critical infrastructure.

A sample of critical infrastructure definitions include water intake structures, water treatment facilities, wastewater treatment plants, natural gas compressor stations, wireline and wireless telecommunications, port, railroad switching yards, trucking terminals, gas processing plants, steel-making facilities, and transmission facilities used by a federally licensed radio or television stations.

Ann Blankenship, executive director of WVONGA, speaks to the need for HB 4615. WV Legislative Photo.

Those who spoke in favor of the bill cited the need for infrastructure protection as a public safety concern. 

Ann Blankenship, executive director of WVONGA, explained the bill’s critical infrastructure language is meant to protect facilities that include the oil and gas industry but also infrastructure facilities as identified and regulated by the United States Department of Homeland Security.

Blankenship said the bill is specific to those who knowingly tamper with critical infrastructure as defined by the bill.

Those speaking in favor of the bill said the law does not usurp First Amendment rights and is necessary.

Speakers in opposition of the bill said it’s purpose was to stop protests against pipelines and other fossil fuel projects.

Speakers said the bill was “un-American” and violated the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

Speaking in opposition to the bill, Reverend Jim Lewis gave examples of civil disobedience, including the 1974 West Virginia textbook protests. Lewis said HB 4615’s purpose was to `chill” the public.

Several speakers from West Virginia’s ACLU, including Eli Baumwell, Joseph Cohen and Loree Stark, said the bill contains conspiracy provisions making  any person or organization that “conspired” to trespass or to damage and tamper with properties, liable. 

Deborah Hamilton presents a “RESIST” button to House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-.Mercer
WV Legislative Photo.

Examples were given, including if a person provides gas money or a ride to a protester who tresspasses or tampers with critical infrastructure, the person who gave gas money or a ride to a trespasser could be held accountable in punitive and or criminal charges. 

The bill states any entity that “compensates, provides consideration to or remunerates a person” for trespassing is also civilly liable for any personal or property damage.

Those in opposition of the bill publicly questioned the constitutionality of the bill. Several speakers, such as Deborah Hamilton, a former West Virginia Deputy Attorney General, said expressed outraged at the bill’s genesis, suggesting the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a national policy organization, was the author of the bill.

The bill is sponsored by Delegates John Kelly, R-Wood; Bill Anderson, R-Wood; David Kelly, R-Tyler; Steve Westfall, R-Jackson; Tom Azinger, R-Wood; Terri Sypolt, R-Preston; Rolland Jennings, R-Preston; Martin Atkinson, R-Roane; and Trenton Barnhart, R-Pleasants.

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