Gov. Edwards gets bill that doubles maximum punishment for flying drones over critical infrastructure

Petrochemical facilities, pipelines and grain elevators are no-fly zones for drones

By: - June 9, 2021 4:29 pm

The Louisiana Legislature has sent Gov. John Bel Edwards a bill that could double the punishment for people who fly drones over petrochemical facilities, pipelines or grain elevators. (“Drone and Moon” by Don McCullough is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

A bill that would increase penalties for flying drones above petrochemical facilities, pipelines and grain elevators is headed to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk  for his signature. 

HB265, by Rep. Ken Brass (D-Vacherie), increases the maximum fine for the second offense of flying a drone above critical infrastructure from $2,000 to $4,000 and increases the possible prison sentence from one year to two years. Jeff Hirsch, a lieutenant detective for the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office, said that the threat from drones became evident in 2017.

That year, drones were seen flying over Dow Chemical and Occidental Chemical in St. Charles Parish, Hirsch said. The Sheriff’s Office researched equipment that could be used to detect the drones. Four antennas were installed in the parish last October to spot drones and identify pilots.

Since then, the Sheriff’s Office has detected 58,000 drones and has had conversations with 32 drone operators to inform them that they cannot fly over industrial facilities. “Everybody is surprised when we knock on their door, because they don’t think they can be found,” Hirsch said at a House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee meeting last month. 

Many of the drone operators identified by officers have been young kids. “To date, we’ve only had one second offense, and the father sold the son’s drone,” he said. St. James Parish has also installed a drone detection system. “Essentially our goal is to have a net of protection that follows critical infrastructure along the Mississippi River,” Hirsch said. 

There have been two arrests in St. James Parish that involved drone operators who continued to fly the unmanned aircraft over facilities after being told not to do so, Hirsch said. A first offense will remain a misdemeanor under HB 265. “We’re still defaulting more times than not to (believing) it was accidental,” he said. 

In 2018, legislators passed a law adding pipelines to the list of infrastructure considered critical. Doing so increased the legal penalties for those who trespass, or protest near pipelines. At least 15 people have been booked with breaking the law: a journalist and 14 protesters. Some of them filed a lawsuit in 2019 challenging the law, arguing that it inhibits free speech. Last month, a federal judge allowed the challenge to move forward.

Bill Quigley, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “Felony prosecutions for sending a drone over grain elevators is ridiculous,” he said of HB 265.

The Louisiana Chemical Association, Louisiana Airport Managers and Associates, Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, BASF and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry supported the bill.

The Louisiana House passed the bill 98-0, and the Senate passed it 36-0.

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Sara Sneath
Sara Sneath

Sara Sneath is an environmental journalist who lives in New Orleans with her dog and three bikes.