NEWPORT CITY — The defense fired holes in the state’s case Thursday morning against two Sterling College students accused of violating a court order barring anyone from being near blasting at the Lowell wind site last fall.
And the presiding judge raised sharp questions of his own in the hour-long hearing, asking about how the students Nov. 16 would have known whether blasting was to occur near the wind construction site.
Defense attorney Kristina Michelson requested the motion to dismiss hearing, arguing that the state didn’t have enough evidence to even charge Trevor Ring and David Martorana with contempt of court in the first place. She asked Judge Robert P. Gerety Jr. to dismiss the contempt charges on the spot.
Gerety did not. He said he would issue a ruling very soon.
The hearing Thursday comes more than a month after blasting ended on the Lowell ridgeline near the property of Don and Shirley Nelson. Protesters tried to stop the blasting last fall by standing within the 1,000-foot blast safety zone that lapped over onto Nelson property, prompting Green Mountain Power to go to civil court to get a preliminary injunction to stop the protests.
The injunction language had to be changed twice before local law enforcement officers would attempt to enforce it.
The court order set up a two-hour advance window before each blast, marked by a warning whistle and an all-clear whistle afterwards.
But once the court order was issued, GMP began an accelerated schedule of blasting — as often as once an hour. GMP got what it wanted, finishing blasting near the Nelson property by the beginning of December.
At the time, protesters lamented on their website that blasting times were so close together that there was no time during daylight hours in which they could go near the blast safety zone without jeopardy of arrest.
Protesters such as Dr. Ron Holland of Irasburg, one of the six later arrested for blockading construction vehicles on the wind site and charged with trespassing, warned deputies that the court order was poorly crafted. He told them it would be impossible to enforce.
Holland made that prediction before the students were charged.
Ring and Martorana were warned Nov. 9 about the civil court order establishing the blast safety zone.
On Nov. 16, they were found by deputies within the zone and were arrested and charged with contempt of court. Lamoille County Sheriff’s deputy Claude Marcoux said the pair was not given a chance to leave that day since they had been warned before and blasting was only a few minutes away. He didn’t know if they knew the blast schedule that day.
Michelson said that the state had not proved that the two were connected to the Nelsons or the protesters. And she said that the state had not proved that there was sufficient warning as called for in the court order each time that blasting was about to occur.
Gerety put the question directly to Marcoux, who was on the stand to testify about the arrests.
Gerety asked how the defendants would have known the time of the blasting.
“I don’t know,” Marcoux said.
He showed the judge a warning sign of the type posted on the steep trail that protesters had used to reach the ridgeline area. But Marcoux didn’t know if a sign listing the upcoming blast schedule was posted there.
Michelson asked him if such a sign would be reasonable, and Marcoux agreed.
Orleans County Deputy State’s Attorney Sarah Baker, who was challenged repeatedly during the hearing by Michelson about evidence and questions to Marcoux, asked how deputies would notify everyone in the blast safety zone if a blast was imminent.
Marcoux said deputies would have to scour the whole 1,000-foot safety zone each time to find every individual. That, he said, would be difficult because some of the protesters were like “mountain goats.”
Michelson asked Marcoux why the deputies didn’t just warn everyone in the zone each time there was a blast scheduled and ask them to leave.
Marcoux said that would have delayed blasting indefinitely because when one person would leave, another would arrive every five minutes.
Ring, after the hearing, said he is getting help from a donation fund for the cost of his defense. He was pleased with the way the hearing went.
“I feel a lot better after today,” Ring said.
Martorana said the charge against him did have an impact on his time at Sterling, where he is studying sustainable agriculture. He said he couldn’t participate in the movement opposing the wind project.
About 20 people attended the hearing in support of the students.
David Rodgers, who was charged with trespassing like Holland, praised the students.
“They became an inspiration to us,” he said.
And Rodgers and Holland said that GMP made a mistake with the arrests of Ring and Martorana and later with Chronicle Publisher Chris Braithwaite, charged with trespassing for covering the blockade.
“GMP really messed up in terms of their public relations,” Rodgers said.