By William Petroski | July 24, 2017 | The Des Moines Register
Two Iowa activists with a history of arrests for political dissent are claiming responsibility for repeatedly damaging the Dakota Access Pipeline while the four-state, $3.8 billion project was under construction in Iowa.
Jessica Reznicek, 35, and Ruby Montoya, 27, both of Des Moines, held a news conference Monday outside the Iowa Utilities Board’s offices where they provided a detailed description of their deliberate efforts to stop the pipeline’s completion. They were taken into custody by state troopers immediately afterward when they abruptly began using a crowbar and a hammer to damage a sign on state property.
Both women are involved in Iowa’s Catholic Worker social justice movement and they described their pipeline sabotage as a “direct action” campaign that began on Election Day 2016. They said their first incident of destruction involved burning at least five pieces of heavy equipment on the pipeline route in northwest Iowa’s Buena Vista County.
“The Dakota Access Pipeline is an issue that affects this entire nation and the people that are subject to its rule,” Reznicek said. “With DAPL, we have seen incredible issues regarding the rule of law, indigenous sovereignty, land seizures, state-sanctioned brutality, as well as corporate protections and pardons for their wrongdoings. To all those that continue to be subjected to the government’s injustices, we humbly stand with you, and we ask now that you stand with us.”
The two women said they researched how to pierce the steel pipe used for the pipeline and in March they began using oxyacetylene cutting torches to damage exposed, empty pipeline valves. They said they started deliberately vandalizing the pipeline in southeast Iowa’s Mahaska County, delaying completion for weeks.
Reznicek and Montoya said they subsequently used torches to cause damage up and down the pipeline throughout Iowa and into part of South Dakota, moving from valve to valve until running out of supplies. They said their actions were rarely reported in the media. They also contended the federal government and Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline developer, withheld vital information from the public.
The two women said they later returned to arson as a tactic, using tires and gasoline soaked rags to burn multiple valve sites and electric units, as well as heavy equipment located on pipeline easements throughout Iowa. They said they attempted again in May to pierce a valve in southeast Iowa’s Wapello County with a cutting torch. But they were disappointed to learn oil was already in the pipe.
In Montoya’s comments to reporters, she criticized decisions by the courts and public officials that allowed the pipeline project to proceed.
“Our conclusion is that the system is broken and it is up to us as individuals to take peaceful action and remedy it, and this we did, out of necessity,” Montoya said.
Both Reznicek and Montoya were transported Monday by law enforcement officers to the Polk County Jail, where they were booked on charges of fourth-degree criminal mischief for damaging metal letters on the sign outside the Iowa Utilities Board building. They were each held on $1,000 bond.
Ronald Humphrey, a special agent in charge of the arson and explosives bureau of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said there is an active, open investigation into arson and damage to the pipeline and construction equipment. Details about the investigation are confidential because it is an ongoing investigation, he added. Meanwhile, an FBI spokesman in Omaha declined to comment and representatives of Energy Transfer Partners didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The Dakota Access Pipeline, which became operational June 1, transports crude oil from the Bakken/Three Forks production areas in North Dakota to a distribution hub near Patoka, Ill. It has the capacity to ship about 520,000 barrels of oil daily.
The pipeline has encountered strong opposition in Iowa, particularly from environmental activists. The project, which cuts diagonally through 18 Iowa counties, has also been fought by farmers who have criticized the use of eminent domain to obtain access to their land for the pipeline. Litigation involving the pipeline is still pending in federal court and before the Iowa Supreme Court.
Veteran activist Frank Cordaro of Des Moines, a former Catholic priest who has long been involved in the Catholic Worker movement, cheered Reznicek and Montoya as they were taken into custody Monday morning. He shouted, “Thank you for your witness. Thank you for your courage.”
Cordaro characterized the actions of the two women as consistent with an American tradition of civil disobedience in the face of wrongdoing and injustice. He said the two women felt an obligation to take personal responsibility to stop the crude oil pipeline project in an effort to prevent environmental damage to soil and water and the eventual destruction of the planet through climate change caused by the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Leaders of anti-pipeline organizations had mixed reactions Monday to the women’s arrests and claims of responsiblity for the sabotage.
Sierra Club of Iowa lawyer Wally Taylor of Cedar Rapids deplored the women’s actions. “Certainly, we had absolutely no knowledge about what these women were doing or were going to do, and we condemn any kind of damage or anything like that,” he said.
Ed Fallon of Des Moines, a former state legislator who helped lead Iowa anti-pipeline protests, said he admired the courage and passion of Reznicek and Montoya.
“I think what this does is generate a pretty hearty discussion about violent vs. non-violent action, about effectiveness versus ineffective actions,” Fallon said. “I think that is a conversation that we all need to continue. It is not a strategy that I have historically approved or of embraced. But I am willing to keep an open mind on where other people stand on it.”
A representative of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement had no comment, while a spokesman for the Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition said the organization was surprised by Reznichek and Montoya’s claims of responsibility and had no involvement in their actions.
Craig Stevens, a spokesman for the Grow America’s Infrastructure Now Coalition, a pro-pipeline group which includes business and labor interests, called the two women’s statements a “stunning admission of guilt.”
“Despite their repeated claims, in no way are the use of gasoline, motor oil, fire and welding torches to destroy construction equipment or pierce pipelines acts of ‘peaceful’ protest,” Stevens said. “These are violent criminals hiding beneath the veneer of young women. They are lucky they were not seriously injured or killed.”
Stevens also said his organization believes improving the nation’s energy infrastructure is critical to ensuring that people have necessary energy. “One has to wonder what magic juice gets these violent criminals from protest site to protest site and also provides the feedstock to the thousands of everyday products they, their families and all Americans use,” he added.
Reznicek and Montoya are active in the Des Moines Catholic Worker community, which was founded in 1976 in response to the Gospel call for compassionate action as summarized by the Sermon on the Mount. However, the Catholic Workers are not all Catholics and they are not controlled by the bishop of the Des Moines Roman Catholic Diocese. The Catholic Workers also have no financial ties to the diocese.
The Catholic Worker community has four houses in Des Moines that focus on a nonviolent lifestyle while serving the poor. Some members of the community have been critical of the Des Moines Roman Catholic Diocese and have called for changes that include ordination of women as Catholic priests and stances against corporate agriculture and the military-industrial complex.
One of the incidents described by the two women appears to match a law enforcement report in March involving an incident in Oskaloosa in southeast Iowa. The Mahaska County sheriff’s office said someone used a blowtorch to damage an above-ground safety valve surrounded by a security fence. There was no oil in the pipeline, although authorities said it was pressurized with nitrogen gas.
However, both women have reportedly denied involvement in several suspected arson incidents last year along the Dakota Access Pipeline construction project that have never been solved by authorities. These included fires in July 2016 involving heavy equipment such as bulldozer and backhoes in Jasper and Mahaska counties that caused nearly $1 million in damage near Newton, Reasonor and Oskaloosa. In October, an intentionally-set fire caused about $2 million in damage to construction equipment near Reasnor.
Both Reznicek, a Des Moines native, and Montoya, who previously lived in Phoenix, Ariz., are experienced political activists. Reznizek became involved in political movements about six years ago with Occupy Wall Street protests. Montoya came to Iowa last year after becoming involved in pipeline protests at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. Both were involved in the “Mississippi Stand” protest against the pipeline along the Mississippi River in southeast Iowa.
Reznicek was among four people arrested in 2015 in Bellevue, Neb., for breaking windows at Northrop Grumman, which is a defense contractor for the U.S. Air Force. She was also engaged in a hunger strike outside the Iowa Utilities Board’s office in November, demanding the board take action to stop the pipeline project. She was subsequently arrested for trespassing after she refused police orders to leave the building. Reznicek and Montoya were also among 12 people arrested in January in Memphis, Tenn., during a protest at a Valero oil refinery while protesting the $900 million Diamond Pipeline project.