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Protesters in Portland dangle from bridge in a bid to block Shell icebreaker

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Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 08.34.47In Portland, environmental activists test out a new tactic: Climbers have rappelled off a bridge to block a Shell icebreaker.

By Evan Bush and Hal BerntonJuly 29, 2015 

Trying to delay Shell’s Arctic ice-breaking ship in Portland, 13 protesters are dangling from the St. Johns Bridge, which spans the Willamette River.

The protesters rappelled from the bridge at about 2:30 a.m. as a group of about 50 kayakers looked on, said Michael Foster, a kayaker from Seattle and veteran of earlier protests against Shell that took place in Washington state. Foster said the protesters are now suspended in hammocks and bivouacs, the same gear as would be used for rock climbing. The dangling activists have enough for two days and plan to re-supply, Foster said.

At first, “the police were all over the bridge. Then it got really quiet,” he said.

As of 7:30 a.m., the police were congregated at the north entrance of the bridge. There were no signs the police were trying to remove the protesters.

The bridge is closed to pedestrians, and motorists can “expect possible congestion on the bridge,” according to an Oregon Department of Transportation’s road conditions map.

Last week, Shell received a permit to begin operations in the Arctic. But until the icebreaker arrives with a key piece of safety equipment, the company cannot drill into “oil bearing zones.” The piece, called a capping stack, can stop oil from flowing if a well blows out and other measures fail.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement requires that “a capping stack be on hand and deployable within 24 hours” for this project.

The icebreaker, named the MSV Fennica, was damaged early this month after departing Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands. The boat struck an object, and was left with a 3-foot long gash.

The 380-foot vessel arrived in Portland last Saturday for repairs. The protesters hope to prevent it from leaving. Delays could jeopardize Shell’s plans because the region’s drilling season is short.

Compared to the earlier protests in Seattle, “tactically this is way beyond,” Foster said. “We have had a lot of time to think about this after what we learned in Seattle and Everett.”

He believes the protesters are hanging low enough and close enough that the icebreaker will not be able to pass.

“There is no way for the ship to get between them (the suspended rapellers),” Foster said.

Environmental groups say they’re concerned about the risk of an oil spill in the Arctic.

In Seattle, where Shell moored its Polar Pioneer drill rig, the company faced resistance from environmental activists and the city itself.

Activists formed a flotilla of kayaks to demonstrate against Shell. Members of the Seattle activist group the “Raging Grannies” were arrested after trying to block the entrance to Terminal 5, where the Polar Pioneer was moored. Activists flooded the phone lines of firms supporting Shell during the Polar Pioneer’s stay in Seattle. Mayor Ed Murray and the city of Seattle put up a roadblock, when it determined the Port of Seattle did not have the proper permit to moor and maintain Arctic drilling equipment. Twenty-four kayaking protesters were detained as the Polar Pioneer left Seattle.

Federal estimates indicate there could be 25 billion barrels of oil in the Arctic region where Shell wants to drill.

In a news release, Greenpeace US director Annie Leonard said this was President Obama’s “last chance to wake up.” She said the government should cancel Shell’s drilling lease.

Leonard downplayed any risks the activists face.

“Rappelling from a bridge is a walk in the park compared to the risks that we’ll face if we continue the climate change trajectory we’re on now,” she said.

Evan Bush: 206-464-2253 or [email protected]; on Twitter: @EvanBush.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or [email protected]; on Twitter: @hbernton.

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