Environmental activists are hanging off a Portland bridge in an attempt to block a Shell icebreaker from leaving.
PORTLAND – As environmental activists continued to dangle off Portland’s St. Johns Bridge early Thursday, a Shell Oil icebreaker was on the move, heading for a possible showdown with the activists who want to keep it from leaving Portland.
They and kayakers on the water below are trying to block the icebreaker from heading to the Arctic for a drill operation.
The U.S. Coast Guard was escorting the icebreaker Thursday morning.
The 13 Greenpeace activists had suspended themselves on ropes from a bridge above the Willamette River here in a bid to stop an icebreaker from heading north to the Chukchi Sea.
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The 380-foot icebreaker, the MSV Fennica, must be on hand in the Chukchi before Shell can drill into oil-bearing zones where the company hopes to make a major new find.
But the vessel was damaged early this month after departing Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands. The boat struck an object, and was left with a three-foot long gash that is being repaired at a Portland ship yard less than a mile upstream from the St. Johns Bridge, where the protesters were dangling in hammocks and hanging tents known as portaledges.
The protesters said they can lower themselves into the path of the Fennica should it try to head downstream to the ocean, as well as raise themselves to get out of the way of other maritime traffic. They have enough supplies for several days, and also could be resupplied.
“We’re prepared to stay here as long as it takes,” said Georgia Hirsty, a 30-year-old activist from Oakland who is one of the 13 people hanging from the bridge.
Last week, Shell received a permit to begin operations in the Arctic. But the icebreaker is a vital part of the Arctic drilling fleet because it carries a key piece of safety equipment. The piece, called a capping stack, can stop oil from flowing if a well blows out and other measures fail.
In Portland, the activists got into place shortly after 2 a.m. Wednesday in an action triggered by a report on the Columbia River Bar Pilots website that the vessel was scheduled to depart early Wednesday morning.
But Shell officials hadn’t confirmed the icebreaker’s timetable for departure, or commented on whether the activists have succeeded in delaying the ship’s sea voyage. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith on Wednesday had said only that “the Fennica will begin its return journey to Alaska once we’ve completed the final preparations.”
Also unclear is how Portland’s police would respond to the bridge protest.
Greenpeace spokeswoman Cassady Sharp said that police did not get advance warning of the plan. But she said some police were on the bridge at the time the protesters quickly lowered themselves on the ropes, and they did not try to interfere.
Through Wednesday morning and afternoon, police allowed 13 activists supporting those suspended on ropes to stay on the bridge. All other foot traffic and bicycle traffic was prohibited but motor vehicles were able to continue to traverse the bridge.
“We are working with our partners to consider the safest and best way to resolve this,” said Greg Stewart, a spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau. “There are a number of things to consider.”
Stewart said those partners included the Coast Guard, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and the Oregon Department of Transportation. Stewart said he “wouldn’t want to speculate” on when a decision might be made on how the bureau would proceed.”
Though the day Wednesday, kayak supporters paddled in the river and dozens of supporters of the bridge protesters gathered at a river-side park,
“People have to take this seriously. It’s the future that they’re fighting for,” said Peter Teneau, an 84-year-old Portland activist. “God bless them.”
Shell is spending billions of dollars in a high-stakes bid to find and develop new offshore oil reserves. That effort also has spurred a fierce backlash from environmentalists who have fought in court, and staged protests on the high seas and in the Pacific Northwest this spring and summer to try to block drilling. They cite the risks of oil spills and climate change driven by fossil-fuel combustion.
Seattle has been at the center of the protest movement as activists rallied against Shell’s use of Terminal 5 at the Port of Seattle as a base for its offshore Arctic fleet. Mayor Ed Murray joined the opposition, saying that oil rigs are part of the past and the city needs to move toward a clean energy future.
Portland activists say they have been lobbying Portland Mayor Charles Hales to issue a statement in opposition to Shell’s drilling in the offshore Arctic. Hales recently was one of a select group of mayors from around the world who attended a Vatican conference on climate change and human rights and met with Pope Francis.
Federal estimates indicate there could be 25 billion barrels of oil in the Arctic region where Shell wants to drill.
Seattle Times enterprise producer Evan Bush contributed to this story, which includes material from The Associated Press.