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Clearwater County jury finds 68-year-old 'water protector' guilty in misdemeanor trial

Jill Ferguson stands in front of the Clearwater County Courthouse on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023, while the jury deliberates its verdict.
Larissa Donovan
/
KAXE
Jill Ferguson stands in front of the Clearwater County Courthouse on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023, while the jury deliberates its verdict.

While receiving no jail time, the trial of Jill Ferguson hinged on her resisting arrest during a July 29, 2021, incident. Ferguson maintains she acted in defense of the Mississippi River.

BAGLEY — A Clearwater County jury found a 68-year-old Milwaukee woman guilty of a misdemeanor obstruction charge following a three-day trial on Wednesday, Aug. 30.

Jill Ferguson was arrested on July 29, 2021, after refusing to comply with officers’ demands to clear an area near crews’ dewatering equipment during the construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement project.

Ferguson, according to the criminal complaint, was among a group of people near the Mississippi River near a caged water pump and advised officers she would not leave the area unless forced to do so.

"Jill is a lifelong activist who has been standing against injustice since protesting the Vietnam War as a 12-year-old."
Honor the Earth

The trial included the testimony of the responding Clearwater County sheriff’s deputies, Megan Pereira and Alexander Yocum.

Yocum, according to his testimony, used pain compliance techniques to remove Ferguson from the water pump, like the “mandibular angle” and “compression wrist locks.”

“I'm not the person I was the morning of that day,” said Ferguson while the jury was deliberating. “And when he went to handcuff me, he whipped my arm back so far. I've got a frozen permanent shoulder. This is it, it doesn't go anymore.”

Jill Ferguson at a 2021 demonstration against Enbridge's Line 3 replacement project. Ferguson is in a field holding flags that say "shame" and one of the American Flag with writing on it, with another flag stating "we are still here."
Contributed
/
Honor the Earth
Jill Ferguson at a 2021 demonstration against Enbridge's Line 3 replacement project.

A news release from Honor the Earth, a climate justice nonprofit that fiercely opposed the Line 3 project, described Ferguson as “a lifelong activist who has been standing against injustice since protesting the Vietnam War as a 12-year-old."

“She was arrested three times during Enbridge’s Line 3 expansion in Minnesota last year and sustained serious, permanent injuries from a Clearwater deputy while protecting the Mississippi River from being pumped for construction during historic drought,” stated the release.

Aside from on-site demonstrations, opposition to the project contacted public officials. President Joe Biden was sent a letter on Aug. 30, 2021, from numerous state and federal lawmakers about the Line 3 expansion project, that cited numerous concerns about the arrests, the drought, potential impacts on treaty rights as well as the effects of the extraction industry as it relates to human trafficking.

A joint response the next day from Minnesota’s commissioners in natural resources, public safety and transportation responded to the numerous assertions, including the drought conditions.

“The suggestion that the temporary act of trench dewatering has exacerbated the drought is theoretical and unsubstantiated,” stated the letter. “DNR’s field-based natural resource scientists estimate that between 2.5 and 5 percent of the water removed from construction trenches in this process would be lost to evaporation.”

The letter stated Enbridge temporarily appropriated 814.4 million gallons through August 2021, which was less than 17% of the company’s permitted limit.
After a lengthy regulatory process, the Line 3 replacement project began in Minnesota in December 2020.

The 1,097-mile crude oil pipeline extends from Edmonton, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin. Initially built in the 1960s, the replacement project diverted from the original route, decommissioning the old 34-inch diameter pipeline.

Line 3, completed in September 2021, has returned to the historical capacity of 760,000 barrels of crude oil moved a day. Old Line 3’s capacity was reduced due to structural deformities like ruptures on the pipeline.

"I’ve gotten to know you a bit, Ms. Ferguson, and I don’t believe there is anything I could do that would silence you anyway."
Judge Jon Maturi

Two years after its completion, supporters of Ferguson and others who took action against the Line 3 pipeline estimate there are about 20 more cases, some with more serious charges.

Clearwater County Attorney Kathryn Lorsbach did not request any further jail time for Ferguson, citing she has followed the conditions of her bond since her arrest.

Contributed
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Enbridge
Map of the old Line 3 route in orange with the new route shown in green.

Judge Jon Maturi imposed a $75 fine after waiving a few legal fees, and advised Ferguson and her supporters to study the methods of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. because “their methods worked.”

“This sentence is not meant to silence you,” Maturi said. “I’ve gotten to know you a bit, Ms. Ferguson, and I don’t believe there is anything I could do that would silence you anyway.”

Entrance of the Clearwater County courthouse.
Larissa Donovan
/
KAXE
Entrance of the Clearwater County courthouse.

Statements provided during Ferguson’s sentencing sought to justify that protesters' actions taken over the construction of Line 3 were in defense of life and of water.

Ferguson described the experience that inspired her to “become a water protector in 2015,” at the site of a Californian pipeline rupture on the Santa Barbara coastline.

“There was a dolphin washed up in the rocks, literally oil spewing out of its mouth,” she said. “And I just fell to the sand and just sobbed and prayed for the dolphin and promised at that point, that I will do whatever it takes for the rest of my life to stop this.”

Another jury trial for actions taken against Line 3 construction is currently underway in Aitkin County, where a 54-year-old Colorado woman faces a felony obstruction charge for an Aug. 26, 2021, incident along the Line 3 route.

Larissa Donovan has been in the Bemidji area's local news scene since 2016, joining the KAXE newsroom in 2023 after several years as the News Director for the stations of Paul Bunyan Broadcasting.