VIDEO: Shell icebreaker threads bridge hangers’ barricade

An icebreaking vessel key to Royal Dutch Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic departed Portland, Oregon, late on Thursday, navigating between a narrow gap of environmental activists dangling from a bridge after a two-day human blockade.

Several Greenpeace activists appeared to bow to orders from police to lower themselves into watercraft in the Willamette River after spending more than 40 hours suspended from a bridge as temperatures soared over 100 F (30 C).

The Fennica threaded a narrow gap under St. John’s bridge just before 6 p.m. local time (0100 GMT) while several of 13 original activists remained dangling in air, backed by dozens of kayaks in the river and onlookers in a nearby park who cheered their cause.

Shell aims to return to the Arctic for the first time since 2012, when it experienced a series of mishaps including the grounding of an oil rig.

It is not allowed to start drilling without the Fennica, which is carrying emergency equipment that would cap any blown-out well, and the drilling season ends in October, when sea ice forms.

Greenpeace says Arctic drilling could be damaging to populations of whales, polar bears and walrus in the event of an oil spill.

Earlier this month, Shell crew on the Fennica icebreaker found a 39-inch (1 meter) gash in the hull, possibly caused by an uncharted shoal, and sent it to Portland for repairs.

The icebreaker’s departure on Thursday triggered a chaotic waterborne tussle between law enforcement boats and obstinate activist kayakers who took to the river again after originally being moved to the side by police using loudspeakers.

Police boats made waves that tossed some kayakers overboard and police dragged them into boats.

At least two activists were arrested, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Steve Alexander said. Earlier, two activists were issued police citations, Greenpeace said.

The activists are the latest group to stage demonstrations over the past three months, seeking to disrupt Shell ships from heading north from Pacific Northwest port areas.

On Thursday morning, they successfully forced the Fennica to return to a dry dock.

The icebreaker stalled when it neared the bridge on the Willamette, which leads to the Pacific Ocean, met by protesters waving large red and yellow banners, at times chanting “Shell No.”

“When that ship turned, that was history,” kayaker Michael Foster told Reuters.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the company respects the rights of individuals to protest but added “the staging of protesters in Portland was not safe nor was it lawful.”

As the protests stretched into the afternoon, a U.S. judge in Alaska held Greenpeace in contempt and ordered it to pay fines of $2,500 per hour if the protest continued, with fines increasing daily to a rolling $10,000 per hour after Aug. 2.

It was not immediately known how much Greenpeace would have to pay in fines, nor if its members planned new protests.

“While we respect the courts, we also respect the increasingly urgent science that tells us Arctic oil needs to stay underground,” Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard said in a statement. 

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