D’Angelo undaunted by fine: ‘I had to make the moral choice’

Chiara D’Angelo comes across as emotionally intelligent and uncompromising in her high-stakes Coast Guard hearing.

Chiara D’Angelo comes across as emotionally intelligent and uncompromising in her high-stakes Coast Guard hearing.

Chiara D’Angelo stood her ground Monday, Feb. 29, in a hearing room on the 34th floor of the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building in downtown Seattle.

D’Angelo, who turned 21 the day before, wouldn’t let the U.S. Coast Guard portray her as a self-interested young woman whose 63 hours in May 2015 on the anchor chain of the Arctic Challenger were an exercise in irresponsibility.

“It was a hard decision, but I had to make the moral choice,” D’Angelo told Coast Guard Commander Scott Klinke, who presided over the hearing via teleconference from Virginia.

The hearing was called so D’Angelo could appeal the $20,000 fine the Coast Guard imposed on her. The Coast Guard accused D’Angelo of violating a 100-yard “safety zone” the agency put around the Arctic Challenger and other Royal Dutch Shell vessels at the oil company’s request as it prepared to mount a drilling operation in the Chukchi Sea.

D’Angelo told the commander she took care to weigh the harm that would be caused by letting the Arctic Challenger leave port so Shell could begin exploring for oil in the Arctic Ocean, and the harm she might cause by diverting Coast Guard search-and-rescue resources over Memorial Day weekend.

This weighing of two evils is one of the four prongs of the climate necessity defense, a legal argument that has yet to be heard in a jury trial.

But it might be, and D’Angelo could be the precedent setter. If D’Angelo and her attorneys at the Civil Liberties Defense Center don’t like the outcome of their appeal, they can take their challenge to federal district court. After Monday’s hearing concluded, Commander Klinke said he would issue a written decision on or after March 10.

The other three prongs of the necessity defense:

  • the defendant acted to prevent imminent harm
  • the action would in fact prevent such harm
  • the defendant had exhausted all legal options.

More for the benefit of a possible future appeal than for this administrative hearing, D’Angelo’s attorney, Amanda Schemkes, outlined how D’Angelo’s chain sit met all four standards.

“We are looking at desperation in stopping Shell from drilling in places like the Arctic,” Schemkes said.

At first, the demonstration on the Bellingham waterfront last May was going to remain legal. It would include a flotilla permitted in advance by the Port of Bellingham, D’Angelo said.

Then she found out the Arctic Challenger was about to leave.

“I felt so viscerally the harm that was going to occur,” she told the hearing officer.

The action escalated by degrees. What was going to be a four-hour “photo shoot” -- a media event, essentially -- on the anchor chain became something more.

“I didn’t know how long I was going to stay, but I couldn’t come down yet,” she said.

She did it because she had to, not because she sought attention.

“I’m the exact opposite. I just want the sea to be healthy,” she said.

D’Angelo’s mother Debra D’Angelo, who lives on Bainbridge Island where she raised Chiara, said her daughter has had an affinity for the Puget Sound -- what’s now called the Salish Sea -- since she was a small child.

“My daughter has a deep emotional and intelligent understanding of what it means for Shell to be drilling in the Arctic,” Debra D’Angelo said, when it was her turn to speak at the hearing.

She likened Shell’s actions to a pulley that lifted her daughter onto the anchor chain.

“At some point, what does a young person who understands the seriousness of the science (do)?” Debra D’Angelo said. “It comes from a place of intelligence and love.”

Chiara D’Angelo was taking a course in climate change in spring 2015 at Western Washington University, “a conservative institution” as she put it, that nonetheless saw fit to teach the dire situation created by humans burning fossil fuel and raising the temperature of the atmosphere.

She became restless while studying in school “rather than using my voice.”

Using her voice will be her life’s work, D’Angelo said. She will graduate from Western in the spring.

“I have no intention of doing this (civil disobedience) ever again,” she said.

“I will never commit an act like this again. I understand and have seen that legal channels work. I have seen that you can change things through people power, and I’m excited for a lifetime of it.”

After testimony was over, Commander Klinke asked a question intended to prompt D’Angelo to say that the fine had taught her a lesson, that the threat of a $20,000 penalty was what got her to change her disobedient ways.

D’Angelo wasn’t taking the bait. She didn’t want to send the message that activists could be intimidated.

“The civil penalty had no influence on my decision not to do an action again,” she said. “That’s a strategic personal decision for my life.”

“(The chain sit) was a rite of passage for me into a very important life’s work. It was necessary for me to prevent a greater harm.”

As far as D’Angelo and her allies were concerned, the greater harm had in fact been prevented. Shell abandoned its Arctic program in September, citing “an unpredictable regulatory environment,” said Matt Fuller, who joined D’Angelo for 22 hours on the anchor chain and attended her hearing as a show of support. (Shell also cited low oil prices, which made extracting crude from the Chukchi Sea unprofitable.)

Fuller has a hearing in the same federal building on Friday, March 4, when he will contest a $2,500 fine for attempting to block Shell’s main drilling rig, the Polar Pioneer, in June in Elliott Bay.

Fuller’s hearing for his chain sit in Bellingham Bay is scheduled for March 17 in Seattle.

Debra D’Angelo and Paul Adler also were fined for entering the safety zone -- an allegation they deny. Adler said the two of them got on a boat together so Debra D’Angelo could reach the periphery of the safety zone and talk to her daughter.

Debra D’Angelo’s hearing is March 18 in Seattle.

About Ralph Schwartz

Posting Citizen Journalist • Member since May 23, 2014

After writing for NWCitizen for five years, Ralph Schwartz helped launch a new Whatcom County newspaper, Cascadia Daily News, joining the staff in December 2021 as government reporter. Before the Daily [...]

Comments by Readers

David Camp

Mar 01, 2016

Excellent reportage, Ralph! We’ll see how the Coast Guard proceeds - if they want their pound of flesh or see the bigger picture. Punishing an idealistic young person with crushing debt for simple trespass in furthering a climate action is heavy-handed (and tone-deaf).

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