CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Delegates vigorously debated the line between criminally disrupting “critical infrastructure” and civil disobedience.

In the end, they passed House Bill 4615, the West Virginia Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, 60-35 with five absences.

The bill enhances jail time and fines for trespassing, intentionally damaging or participating in a conspiracy to disrupt properties defined as critical infrastructure.

Examples include petroleum refineries, water treatment facilities, natural gas compressor stations or even a transmission facility for a federally-licensed radio or television station.

But what the bill’s sponsors might have had top of mind is the natural gas pipelines that have been subject to protest as they have been under construction throughout this region.

Protesters of those projects have camped in trees and refused to come down or chained themselves to heavy equipment at work sites.

John Shott

“We’re talking about intentional lawbreakers,” said House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer.

He later added, “Once you cross over into property that doesn’t belong to you on which you have no right to be and the consequences of that could be devastating then what we want in return is higher penalties.”

Debate over the bill went on for almost an hour.

Supporters rose and said the power structure — and people’s jobs — shouldn’t be disrupted by people with criminal intent.

Daryl Cowles

“If you want to exercise your freedom of speech, your freedom of assembly, any of your God-given rights, we enjoy that here,” said Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan.

“That’s not what this is about. This is about criminal trespassing, criminal destruction of property.”

Mike Pushkin

But skeptics described a history of civil disobedience by people who sometimes feel they have no other recourse.

“There was a group of patriots who gathered in Boston Harbor to protest the unjust taxation of tea. They threw the tea off the boat,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha.

“This does put severe criminal penalties for standing up to what you believe in.”

Mike Caputo

Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, brought up Kentucky coal miners who have blocked train tracks to protest unpaid wages. That has happened in two instances in recent months.

“So they got together and decided they were going to shop that shipment of mine until they got paid,” said Caputo, a retired union miner. “I guess because they got together, that could be a conspiracy.”

Shott countered that an amendment adopted Wednesday, saying a new law would not apply to picketing at the workplace, would account for such instances.

Marshall Wilson

Delegate Marshall Wilson, I-Berkeley, asked about other gray areas.

For instance, he asked about pipeline rights of way going through people’s property. What if, he asked, the property owner had the right to access the pipeline right of way and then invited a friend or neighbor onto the property.

“So if the neighbor gives me permission to be on his land and then I step onto the easement without permission, am I trespassing?” Wilson asked.

Rodney Miller

Delegate Rodney Miller, D-Boone, said the bill is unnecessary because penalties for trespass, willful property damage and conspiracy already exist in the law. Miller is a former sheriff who said he often had to deal with protests.

“What is proposed here is already in code. It’s completely unnecessary,” Miller said. “People want and need to be heard, and I don’t think we need to restrict them in their ability to do that.”