District Attorney Lessens Charges in ‘Lobster Boat Blockade’ Case

DA Sam Sutter also said he'd back protesters by marching with them in New York to fight climate change.

In a move that shocked even climate change activists, Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter announced Monday that he was dropping the most serious infractions against two men charged last year for boarding a small boat and positioning it in the harbor in Somerset, just outside of the largest power plant in the state, to keep a shipment of coal from reaching its destination.

Standing outside of Fall River District Court, in front of 100 people there to support activists Jay O’Hara and Ken Ward as their case prepared to go to trial, Sutter called climate changes spurred by greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning plants “one of the greatest crises our planet has ever faced.”

Sutter announced that his office was dropping the “conspiracy” charges Ward and O’Hara faced, and reducing the other charges to civil infractions. According to LobsterBoatBlockade.org, the website that has been tracking O’Hara and Ward’s pending court case, the two activists will instead pay $2,000 each in restitution to the town of Somerset for the stunt they pulled off in May 2013.

“[The agreement] was made with our concern for their children, the children of Bristol County, and beyond in mind,” Sutter told the shocked crowd of climate activists. “[This] symbolizes of our commitment at the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office to take a leadership role on this issue.”

Last year, O’Hara and Ward made headlines when they decided to protest the shipment of 40,000 tons of coal to the Brayton Point Power Station, the New England region’s largest coal-burning facility, with a small, white lobster boat adorned with a banner bearing the Twitter hashtag “Coal is Stupid” on the roof of the vessel, which they named Henry David T.

The standoff with the coal-carrying ship, a 688-foot vessel called the Energy Enterprise, lasted six hours from the time they dropped anchor in the channel, and eventually ended when the U.S. Coast Guard and a dive team intervened to lift the anchor. Later, Somerset Police charged both O’Hara and Ward with conspiracy, motorboat violations, and disturbing the peace.

After they were arraigned in October of last year, the pair started planning for their court date, and ultimately decided they would use a “necessity” defense during the trial, a rare legal maneuver that would have argued that their protest was for the greater good of the environment, and to the benefit of the public’s health.

Luckily, the case never made it that far.

“This decision by the District Attorney is an admission that the political and economic system isn’t taking the climate crisis seriously, and that it falls to ordinary citizens, especially people of faith, to stand up and take action to avert catastrophe,” O’Hara said.

Although the most severe charges against O’Hara and Ward were dropped by the DA, who said he would march with climate change activists in an upcoming protest in New York City, their work is far from done. Following the non-violent action in the harbor last year, the activists said their point wasn’t merely to make a statement about the impacts coal burning has on the environment, but instead a call to have the Brayton Point plant completely shut down.

In a way, they’re getting what they wanted—the plant is set to close in 2017. But for Ward and O’Hara, that’s not soon enough.

“Protest works, indeed protest maybe the only thing that can save us,” said Ward.