Group claims responsibility for St. Paul fire

by Jessica Thompson

The underground environmental activist group Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility Wednesday for setting fire to two St. Paul campus buildings.

No people or animals were injured in the Saturday morning fire, which destroyed a construction trailer on the Microbial and Plant Genomics Building construction site.

The blaze spread to the adjacent Crops Research Building, where it damaged three labs, several graduate projects and an undetermined amount of research.

Monetary damage to the buildings has not yet been assessed.

University police Capt. Steve Johnson said information in the ELF communiqué, released Wednesday morning, led officials to believe the claim is credible.

“Only someone with firsthand knowledge would know so much about how the fire was set,” Johnson said.

The arson is under investigation by University police, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Johnson said officials have “no specific suspects.”

In its communiqué, the ELF said it placed incendiary devices in the construction trailer and in two pieces of heavy machinery, including a bulldozer.

“We are fed up with capitalists like Cargill and major universities like the ‘U’ of ‘M,’ who Ö seek to exploit and control nature to the fullest extent under the guise of progress,” the communiqué stated.

The $20 million Microbial and Plant Genomics Building was funded equally in 2000 by the state Legislature and Cargill – a Minnetonka-based commodity processor and trader.

In a Wednesday press release, the ELF said it is opposed to research regarding genetically modified plants, which it says promotes
pesticide use and drives up profits for multinational corporations.

But Robert Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, said researchers in the Microbial and Plant Genomics Building will study ways to reduce pesticide use and preserve ecosystems.

“(The ELF) is dead wrong. It’s an absolute paradox,” Elde said. “We’re shocked and we’re outraged that something like this could happen.”

Elde said damage from the arson was most heavily concentrated in the Soil Testing labs, where approximately 40,000 soil samples are tested annually.

This is not the first time the ELF has claimed responsibility for damaging University property.

Most recently, in February 2000 the group allegedly targeted a St. Paul campus greenhouse in Green Hall, overturning more than 800 transgenic research plants, gluing doors shut and spray painting phrases such as “Free the Seed” on the walls. The attack caused approximately $1,000 in damages.

The group’s targets have ranged from Highway 55 project areas to Nike stores to a ski resort in Colorado, where more than $12 million in damages were reported.

FBI spokesman Paul McCabe said since 1997 the ELF has caused more than $40 million in physical damage nationwide.

“It’s hard to put a price tag on the amount of research that’s been lost,” McCabe said.

He said the group is loosely organized and maintains communication through its Web site – a site featuring advice on how to commit arson.

McCabe said he could not disclose any information about ongoing investigations into illegal ELF activity. He said the FBI is not targeting the ELF based on its political or social beliefs.

“We investigate based only upon planned or actual criminal activity,” McCabe said. “Domestic terrorism won’t be tolerated in this country.”

Elde said the University’s fiscal problems make the attack particularly demoralizing.

“Here we’re facing significant budget cuts and now Ö we’re going to have to divert money from taxpayers to compensate for the bizarre philosophical position these people take,” he said.