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Coos Sheriff Acknowledges Monitoring Of Fossil Fuel Project Opponents

Yurok Tribal Councilor Ryan Ray speaks out against the Jordan Cove LNG project at a federal hearing in Medford.
Jes Burns
Yurok Tribal Councilor Ryan Ray speaks out against the Jordan Cove LNG project at a federal hearing in Medford.

UPDATE (Aug. 8, 4 p.m. PT) — Law enforcement in Southwest Oregon have for several years been monitoring activists who are fighting the Jordan Cove natural gas infrastructure project, according to the Coos County Sheriff’s Office.

The Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas project is being proposed by the Canadian company Pembina. Plans include a 230-mile pipeline across four southwest Oregon counties that would connect a supply of fracked natural gas from Canada and the Rockies to an export terminal at the Port of Coos Bay. There, the gas would be liquefied and shipped to markets in Asia.

Grassroots organization opposed to the pipeline has been active for years. The opponents include property rights advocates, climate change activists, local tribes and those concerned about risks the $10 billion project could pose to local communities in the event of natural or other disaster. Activists say they are disturbed about being tracked. And Oregon's leading civil liberties watchdog group says they have good reason to be concerned.

Law enforcement monitoring of these groups and the sharing of that information between federal, state and local agencies — as well individuals outside the government — first came to light Thursday in a story published in The Guardian.

OPB has independently confirmed the monitoring was conducted by the Coos County Sheriff’s Office and that the information was shared by South Western Oregon Joint Task Force (SWOJTF), a group formed by the sheriff’s office to share information between agencies.

One of the groups tracked by law enforcement was Southern Oregon Rising Tide (SORT), a direct action climate activist group.

“It’s unfortunately not a total surprise,” said Josephine County SORT member Grace Warner. She was aware of a precedent for monitoring of activist groups in the U.S. “We knew already that [the Coos County Sheriff’s Office] was receiving funding from the pipeline company.”

A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office acknowledged that to be the case. The contract between Jordan Cove and the CCSO to provide security for the project has been in place since 2016, and has been previously reported by The Coos Bay World.

“[Jordan Cove] LNG was contracting with us to provide the security mission, so as part of that we were preparing for everything,” said Capt. Gabe Fabrizio, a public information officer for CCSO, in an interview Thursday.

Fabrizio downplayed the nature of the monitoring, characterizing it as “passive.”

“Monitoring is just looking for information on them, typically on the open-source internet. Social media is a great example of monitoring. Just trying to gather a heads-up as to their intent without going out an actively surveilling,” he said.  In an email, Fabrizio illustrated the value of such monitoring, stating, "We have actually had some success identifying potential shooters or other criminal acts just based on social media."

He said the sheriff’s office sends officers to local anti-Jordan Cove protests and rallies “only if there’s a safety concern,” and that this kind of work by the CCSO is not specific to Jordan Cove opponents.

“We’re not monitoring specific groups or people, unless they show potential for being an issue for the county and the citizens,” Fabrizio said. “It’s more of just trying to anticipate issues wherever it comes from.”

For example, CCSO Staff Sgt. Doug Strain says the office is currently keeping an eye out for problems that could arise around an anti-gun control event recently announced.

“Right now we have an event coming to the Coos Bay area — some folks that may be coming down from Portland with Patriot Prayer — and so we’re monitoring to see if there’s any rhetoric about that that might be concerning,” he said.

Strain said they have not identified any problems connected to that event.

The Coos County Sheriff’s Office shares pertinent information it gathers through the South West Oregon Joint Task Force. The office confirmed that membership includes individuals in local municipal police departments, Oregon State Police, FBI, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

CCSO’s Fabrizio said if concerns arose based on their monitoring, the information shared with the Task Force would preserve the privacy of the individual in question. And then if “it was determined that it wasn’t an issue or doesn’t need to be followed, we would stop.”

“The layer that is especially disturbing about this is how much effort that they are putting into communicating with each other and monitoring at that point in this campaign,” said Warner, the Rising Tide activist. “The fact that they feel it’s necessary to get on our Listservs and share our Facebook posts with each other, it’s really creepy and disturbing to us. And we also think it’s a waste of their time.”

Oregon ACLU policy director Kimberly McCullough said the kind of monitoring CCSO is doing could easily be called surveillance, and that Oregon has some of the strongest laws in the nation protecting individuals from this kind of law enforcement action.

One statute says agencies cannot “collect or maintain information about the political, religious or social views, associations or activities of any individual, group, association, organization, corporation, business or partnership unless such information directly relates to an investigation of criminal activities, and there are reasonable grounds to suspect the subject of the information is or may be involved in criminal conduct.”

“What we see in this particular circumstance is that type of watching,” McCullough said, although she said she would need more details about how the sheriff’s office has been operating before making any kind of legal conclusion.

She said the fact that the information is being shared between agencies also raises questions.

“This isn’t just about local law enforcement acting all on their own. They are acting in conjunction with, oftentimes, the FBI or with federal law enforcement agencies. And they follow very, very different rules than we do here in Oregon,” McCullough said.

Federal agencies aren’t subject to Oregon laws about targeting people based on protected activities.

“I think activists have a real reason to be concerned,” McCullough said.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jes Burns is a reporter for OPB's Science & Environment unit. Jes has a degree in English literature from Duke University and a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications.