How a file box full of plastic got two Louisiana women arrested for terrorizing

Anne Rolfes and Kate McIntosh, environmental activists with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, turned themselves into the Baton Rouge Police Department Thursday to be booked on counts stemming from a plastic pollution awareness event that took place more than six months ago.

Rolfes was booked with terrorizing, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. McIntosh was booked with principal to terrorizing. Each was released Thursday afternoon after posting $5,000 bond.

The charge stems from a protest of sorts in which the women left a file box full of plastic pellets, also called nurdles, on the doorstep of Greg Bowser, a lobbyist for the chemical industry. The nurdles were found in Texas bays near a plastic manufacturing facility owned by Formosa Plastics.

A police detective called a lawyer representing the pair to alert them that there was a warrant out for their arrest.

The women left the file box that triggered the charges at Bowser's Baton Rouge home on Dec. 11. Police officers contacted a hazmat team to handle the package, said Don Coppola, a Baton Rouge police spokesman. The team discovered that the package contained "trash and plastic," according to an affidavit filed in support of the arrest. Video footage showed the women leaving the package on the porch and running back to their rental car.

The legal definition of terrorizing is intentionally causing fear to the general public, causing evacuation of a building or other serious disruption to the general public.

The box had a note attached that said the plastic pellets should not be removed from their packaging, left around children or pets and should be recycled responsibly. "These are just some of the billions of nurdles that Formosa Plastics dumped into the coastal waters of the state of Texas," the note said, according to a copy provided by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. "These were used as evidence in a landmark lawsuit filed against Formosa under the Clean Water Act."

The note triggered the terrorizing charges, according to the arrest warrant, signed by 19th Judicial District Judge Anthony Marabella.

"It was obvious that by indicating the contents of the container were hazardous that the individuals were attempting to cause the home owners to be in fear for their safety to intimidate the home owner," says the affidavit supporting the warrant, signed by Detective Logan Collins on April 16. 

Boxes of plastic pellets were delivered to the homes of several oil and chemical industry lobbyists in Baton Rouge, including that of Bowser, who is president of Louisiana Chemical Association. Public records show the address where the incident took place to be that of Bowser.

Bowser confirmed that he received a box of plastic pellets at his home. He would not comment further.

Tyler Gray, who is president and general counsel for Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, also received a box of plastic pellets at his home. Gray said his wife filed a police report about the box when he was out of town. He would not comment further.

Jim Harris, a spokesman for Formosa Plastics, said he too received a box of plastic pellets at his home, but did not call law enforcement.

"I quickly figured out what the stunt was about," he said.

Asked why police waited so long to arrest the pair, Coppola said detectives wanted to "respect the investigative process" and said that the coronavirus pandemic had slowed things. 

Pam Spees, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights who is representing the women, said the charges have "zero legal merit.” 

“They do not even pass the laugh test," Spees said. "We ask the district attorney to look carefully at these arrests and reject the charges against these two dedicated advocates as soon as possible.”

The action was part of a plastic pollution awareness event that took place in Baton Rouge called Nurdlefest. A Facebook page for the event describes the festival as a day packed with speakers, musicians and performers who gathered to bring awareness to what would happen if Formosa was allowed to build a massive petrochemical complex in St. James Parish. The complex has been approved.

Last year, a judge ruled with plaintiffs in a lawsuit that alleged Formosa violated the Clean Water Act by discharging plastic pellets into bays near its plant in Point Comfort, Texas. The company agreed to pay $50 million to settle the suit.

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Sharon Lavigne, a St. James Parish resident who started the group Rise St. James to oppose the plastic plant, said her group would join with other civic organizations to form a coalition called the Alliance to Defend Democracy in response to the charges brought against Rolfes and McIntosh and other recent legal attempts to silence protesters. 

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Sheriff’s deputies have threatened Lavigne with arrest for visiting a burial site of enslaved people on the site of the proposed Formosa Plastics plant near her home, although a judge granted the group permission to visit the site last week for a Juneteenth ceremony.

Last year, Baton Rouge police detained the Rev. Gregory Manning and Sakura Kone for protesting outside the office of Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the state's most powerful business lobby, on the 11th floor of the Chase South Tower. Baton Rouge prosecutors later refused the charges.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore said Thursday that he was out of town and is not yet familiar with the case against Rolfes and McIntosh.

The charges against Rolfes and McIntosh are "immoral and unethical," Manning said. “We have seen clear displays of the unjust intimidation by industries and law enforcement which use inaccurate and unfair characterizations of non-violent incidents. The charges brought against our allies are manipulative and fabricated and should be immediately dismissed."

Staff writer Sam Karlin contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This story was changed June 26 to correct who complained to police about the package of nurdles.

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