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Pipeline protester says they stood for 'rights of the earth'

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Protester Brandon Smith explains what happened during a protest at the Valero refinery in South Memphis Katie Fretland/The Commercial Appeal

Protester Robert “Brandon” Smith explained his motivation Tuesday for protesting at the Valero refinery in South Memphis where a dozen people were arrested.

Smith, 31, of Mountain Home, Arkansas, said he is concerned about the Diamond Pipeline, a project by the Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline and San Antonio-based Valero. Construction of the 20-inch crude oil pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma to Memphis began last year and is scheduled to be complete this year.

Smith noted that Plains All American Pipeline was indicted last year after an oil spill in California.

“You have to stand up at some point and stand up for your civil rights and stand up for the rights of the earth, stand up for the rights of the animals (and) that’s what we did,” Smith said in the lower level of the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center. “We went out there and just protested. I was out there just holding my sign and walking up and down the sidewalk and they told us that we weren’t allowed to do that because we didn’t have a permit. So here I am because we didn’t have a permit to use our freedom of speech.”

The builders of the pipeline have addressed safety concerns saying the Diamond Pipeline is federally regulated and “subject to rigorous design, construction, operation and maintenance standards.”

“The Diamond Pipeline will exceed the United States Department of Transportation pipeline standards and will include a number of safety elements,” according to the company. “New pipe will be manufactured to exceed industry standards and specifications. The pipeline will be laid at an increased depth to reduce susceptibility to third-party damage.”

The company said the project will create about 1,500 new contract construction positions across Oklahoma and Arkansas and about 15 permanent jobs along the pipeline after completion.

Several of the demonstrators came to court Tuesday and others apparently have court dates on Wednesday, although one man who was at the demonstration, Alex Cohen, said there was confusion over when people were supposed to appear, as well as concerns over people not getting blankets or beds while jail.

During the protest, some of the demonstrators sat down with their arms attached to barrels. The Memphis Police Department’s TACT unit, about three dozen police vehicles and several fire vehicles responded.

Cohen said that during the protest, police blocked the roadway, and one woman, Amber Duvall, was arrested outside of a cordoned off area past the zone where press were being told to stay. He said she was arrested “for following orders on a public sidewalk.”

Attorneys Jason Ballenger and Mike Working said charges have been dismissed against Duvall and Smith.

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