Shell icebreaker slips out of Portland after authorities move protesters from bridge and waters

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Authorities forced protesters in kayaks from a river Thursday in Portland, Oregon, where the demonstrators were trying to stop a Royal Dutch Shell icebreaker from leaving dry dock and joining an Arctic oil-drilling operation.

Police also tried to lower protesters who were dangling from a bridge into the water below.

Shortly before 6 p.m., the icebreaker managed to slip through the space created after two activists were lowered from their positions.

Portland police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson said safety was the main priority as authorities tried to move protesters away from the area. Police and Coast Guard officers were joined by firefighters and a rope-rescue team.

"This is, obviously, a very unique situation," he said.

Greenpeace spokeswoman Cassady Sharp said the people on the St. Johns Bridge over the Willamette River would leave peacefully if they thought they were in danger.

"We'll just have to see how their forced removal plays out right now," Sharp said. "Right now, it's definitely kind of a holding pattern."

The move by authorities came hours after a federal judge in Alaska ordered Greenpeace USA to pay a fine of $2,500 for every hour that other protesters dangle from a bridge over the river to block the ship.

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage came hours after the icebreaker appeared to begin heading out of Portland and toward a possible showdown with protesters dangling from a bridge in the hopes of blocking the vessel. The icebreaker, however, retreated just after 7:30 a.m., about a quarter-mile from the bridge, prompting cheers from environmental activists gathered below on a boardwalk.

The judge said Greenpeace is in civil contempt because the protesters, suspended from ropes tied to the St. Johns Bridge, impeded the icebreaker. The fine, now at $2,500 an hour, would jump to $5,000 an hour Friday, $7,500 an hour Saturday, and $10,000 an hour Sunday, according to Gleason's order.

Gleason in May granted Shell's request that activists protesting Shell's Arctic drilling plans be ordered to stay away from Shell vessels and beyond buffer zones.

After the ruling, Greenpeace was trying to determine its next move. "We are confronted with a huge decision, one we cannot make alone," said Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard. "Right now we're asking the activists what they think we should do next. As of this moment, the 26 activists will stay in place."

When informed of the court-imposed fine, Georgia Hirsty, a protester who has spent more than a day hanging off the bridge, said " I would hate to have to bow to that threat."

Shell, in a statement, said it was pleased with the judge's ruling and it respects the rights of protesters "so long as they do so safely and within the boundaries of the law."

The statement, from spokesman Curtis Smith, went on to say, "The staging of protesters in Portland was not safe nor was it lawful."

The protest in Portland began early Wednesday when the Greenpeace demonstrators suspended themselves from ropes they set up on on the bridge to try to stop the icebreaker from heading north to the Chukchi Sea. On Thursday morning, it the daring protest had at least a temporary result as the Fennica pivoted and turned back upstream.

Kristina N. Flores, an activist, tweeted from the bridge deck: "Feeling victorious! The Fennica turned around and headed back to the port. Another successful day of blockading! #shellno arctic drilling!!"

One of the demonstrators suspended in the air, Georgia Hirsty, 30, said, "It was a really powerful moment ... I was glad when they took heed of the direct action (protest) and decided to turn around."

A spokesman for the Coast Guard, Petty Officer George Degener, said the agency did not direct the Fennica to turn around.

"That was not a Coast Guard decision. That was the prerogative of the captain and the river pilots on board," he said.

Earlier in the morning, a Coast Guard vessel tried to warn off the 13 dangling protesters and some 10 kayakers, blaring a recorded message: "You are violating a safety zone set by the Coast Guard as well as a federal court injunction against Greenpeace ... you must immediately depart from this area."

"Shell no," shouted the protesters, who want to block the 380-foot icebreaker from leaving Portland

The spectacle was carried live on TV in Portland, as everyone wondered what would happen as the icebreaker headed toward the bridge, and how authorities might try to remove the demonstrators. Degener said the protesters "are in violation of federal law and have impeded the safe navigation of a commercial vessel on a federally navigable waterway." He said they could face civil penalties and it's possible they could be detained.

Through Wednesday morning and afternoon, police allowed 13 activists supporting those suspended on ropes to stay on the bridge. The bridge remained open to cars.

Thursday morning, the Oregon Department of Transportation closed the bridge to cars and pedestrians as the Fennica neared the bridge.

Rachael Thompson, a 21-year-old Greenpeace intern and one of 13 activists on the bridge deck supporting the dangling activists and providing them with supplies, said police presence on the bridge increased.

"I was pretty much in tears," she said, voicing concern for the climbers dangling below.

Police backed the supporters away from ropes used to lower supplies to the dangling protesters and took control of them, but they left alone the ropes extending down to the climbers.

"We have told them not to touch them. We have made that clear and they have obeyed that," Thompson said.

When the boat turned around, Thompson said, "it was such an inspiration to stay and fight."

The police returned control of the ropes to the activists. "They've actually been pretty nice," Thompson said.

She said the police told activists on the bridge deck they would be subject to arrest if they did not leave.

After the icebreaker turned around, authorities reopened the bridge to cars, and on one side, bicycles and pedestrians.

It's not clear if, or how, Portland police, Coast Guard and other agencies intend to remove protesters. No single agency is in control of the government response, said Don Hamilton, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

"It's a very complicated situation. This is not a simple trespass on somebody's lawn ... Lives are at stake here. Federal, state and local authorities are all involved."

Last week, Shell received a permit from the Obama administration to begin drilling in the sea in Northwest Alaska. But the company cannot drill into oil-bearing zones without a key piece of equipment being carried by the Fennica called a capping stack, which can stop oil from flowing if a well blows out or other measures fail.

The icebreaker was damaged early this month on its way to Shell's Arctic drilling sites after leaving Dutch Harbor, Alaska and headed back to Portland for repairs, giving activists a chance to try to disrupt Shell's plans.

Greenpeace spokeswoman Cassady Sharp said Wednesday that police did not get advance warning of its plan to disrupt the icebreaker's departure. But she said some police were on the bridge at the time the protesters quickly lowered themselves on the ropes, and did not try to interfere.

Shell is spending billions in hopes to find new offshore oil reserves. Activists in the Northwest have staged multiple protests to oppose the company's efforts. In Seattle, activists formed a flotilla of kayaks to demonstrate against Shell, they tried to block the entrance to the terminal where Shell's drilling rig was moored and they flooded phone lines of firms in Seattle supporting the company.

The activists say the risk of an oil spill is too great and that the cleanup after a potential spill would be too difficult.

Federal estimates indicate there could be 25 billion barrels of oil in the region where Shell intends to drill.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Bernton reported from Portland, Bush from Seattle.

Hal Bernton, The Seattle Times

Hal Bernton is a a reporter for The Seattle Times and a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News.