Six Arrested for Suspected Eco-Terrorism

Six suspected eco-terrorists were arrested this week for arson and destruction crimes in the Northwest. Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on the history of these crimes and what these arrests could mean.

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FBI and Homeland Security officers swept through several states this week, arresting six suspects for environmentally motivated attacks against developers and businesses. The attacks took place in the Pacific Northwest between 1998 and 2001. Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on the crimes and what the arrests mean for radicals in the environmental and animal-rights movements.

KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL reporting:

On June 1st, 1998, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection facility in Olympia, Washington, suffered more than a million dollars' worth of damage in an arson attack. A few months later, an Oregon lumber company went up in smoke. Then it was a meat-packing plant. Indeed, there were a string of six attacks, all claimed by either the radical environmental group the Earth Liberation Front or the extremist animal-rights organization the Animal Liberation Front. These groups accused their victims of profiting from the destruction of the planet and its living creatures. The Bonneville Power Administration was one of those victims. Spokesman Mike Hansen says one of its transmission towers was toppled in the nation's only act of sabotage on the eve of the new millennium.

Mr. MIKE HANSEN (Spokesperson, Bonneville Power Administration): We did offer a reward of about $10,000 for any information leading to the arrest of the person or people who did this, but at this point in time we're not sure whether or not that $10,000 reward is at play or not.

FODEN-VENCIL: In other words, Hansen doesn't know whether it was an informant that prompted the string of arrests or whether it was plain old-fashioned police work. What authorities are saying is that saboteurs operated in small cells to burn and vandalize businesses. Emily Langley, a spokeswoman for the US attorney's office in Seattle, says they've worked on some of these cases for eight years.

Ms. EMILY LANGLEY (Spokesperson, US Attorney's Office in Seattle): So we're very pleased that at this point six indictments have been returned, and we hope to move forward with taking these cases to trial.

FODEN-VENCIL: The six people arrested are between 28 and 40 and face jail terms of 20 years to life. Steve Swanson is the director of Superior Lumber, which went up in smoke in January 2001. He hopes the arsonists are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Mr. STEVE SWANSON (Director, Superior Lumber): Regardless of the misguided intent of these people, they are criminals that are trying to take away people's livelihoods, committing crimes. And eventually if those things go on unchecked, it's only a matter of time until somebody is seriously injured or killed.

FODEN-VENCIL: What effect this week's arrests might have on the eco-sabotage movement is unclear. But Bryan Denson, who has tracked the Earth Liberation Front for The Oregonian newspaper for nine years, says there is evidence lengthy prison terms have reduced activities. For example, there have been no significant attacks in Oregon since activist Jeff Luers received a 22-year sentence for burning three trucks at an SUV dealership. But, says Denson, activists in other states don't appear to have gotten the message.

Mr. BRYAN DENSON (The Oregonian): They have had arrests, quite a number of them, across the country and particularly in California, in some rather large arsons attributed to the Earth Liberation Front and like-minded groups. And I'll tell you, that has not stopped these acts. In fact, they've really escalated in the last couple of years.

FODEN-VENCIL: Just how eco-saboteurs are reacting is anyone's guess, because they're both volatile and underground. But here in Oregon, local bulletin boards are buzzing. Activists are bristling at the fact that the suspects are being labeled terrorists and are facing life in prison for what they say amount to property crimes. Authorities say the investigation is continuing, and several other people have been subpoenaed to appear in front of a grand jury in Eugene, Oregon, this spring. For NPR News, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland, Oregon.

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