Less than a week after construction began on the controversial Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana, a coalition of crawfishers and environmental groups took legal steps to immediately shut down the project. As a result, on February 8 a federal judge will review a request filed this morning from Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, which seeks to halt construction of the pipeline through the Atchafalaya Basin while the court considers the firm’s earlier case challenging the pipeline’s permitting.
A federal judge has denied the request for a temporary restraining order that would have paused construction ahead of the February 8 hearing.*
The motion was filed on behalf of a coalition of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network, the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West, and the Waterkeeper Alliance.
If built, the pipeline would transport up to 480,000 barrels of oil a day from Lake Charles, in southwestern Louisiana, to a terminal in St. James Parish on the banks of the Mississippi River, cutting through the environmentally sensitive Atchafalaya Basin.
Energy Transfer Partners, the majority shareholder of Bayou Bridge LLC (and Dakota Access), confirmed that construction began last week, despite legal challenges it faces in federal and state court.
Bayou Bridge pipeline construction site where trees are being cleared along the pipeline route.
Bayou Bridge pipeline construction site.
On January 25, I went to one of the sites on the outskirts of the Atchafalaya Basin where work on the pipeline had begun. Drone footage by Phinizy Percy, an independent camera operator, captured a swath of trees already cut down and piled along the route.
‘Irreparable Harm’ to the Basin?
On January 11 Earthjustice filed a case against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alleging that irreparable harm to the Atchafalaya River Basin was not adequately considered when the Corps approved a permit for the pipeline.
“Energy Transfer Partners has a deplorable track record when it comes to respect for our environment and our nation’s irreplaceable ecosystems,” Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in a statement to the press. “We can’t allow them to run roughshod over the Atchafalaya Basin’s bottomland hardwoods, cypress swamps, bayous and backwater lakes — and the communities that rely on them — particularly when the Corps failed to adequately consider the risks posed by this project.”
The suit makes the case that the proposed pipeline threatens to damage the delicate and already stressed ecosystem in the Atchafalaya Basin, a national heritage site. In addition, the suit claims the crawfish industry, which relies on the health of the basin’s wild crawfish habitat, will be negatively impacted.
The plaintiffs demand that the Corps enforce existing permits for oil and gas pipeline companies already operating in the basin that are not compliant. They say that if the Corps does not bring those operators into compliance before the Bayou Bridge pipeline is installed, then the damage to the basin and the water flow essential to it resulting from existing pipeline construction impacts could become permanent.
“There are already miles of pipelines crisscrossing the basin that have decimated our water quality, creating hypoxic water that kills crawfish, and filled the basin with so much sand that our ability to fight flooding has been seriously compromised,” said Jody Meche, a commercial crawfisherman with the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West. “Why should we let a company that has already proven it has no regard for our environment or our way of life do even more harm?”
The Decline of an Ecosystem and Way of Life
Jody Meche, president of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West, at a fundraiser event for Atchafalaya Basinkeeper.
At the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper’s annual fundraiser on January 28 in Lafayette, Louisiana, Meche told supporters that he has had a front row seat while watching the decline of the basin. The Cajun way of life will soon be a thing of the past if people like him don’t stand up and protect what belongs to all of us, said Meche.
Meche and many locals are not against the oil and gas industry per se, but they do not support allowing that industry to destroy a way of life for them and generations to come. He and the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, where he is a board member, will continue fighting to hold the government accountable for its responsibility to protect the basin.
Meche pointed out Energy Transfers Partners failure rate, citing the company’s drilling mud spill in Ohio during construction of the Rover pipeline. If a similar spill were to happen in the basin, the crawfish industry would be destroyed, he said.
“Energy Transfer Partners has proven time and time again that it can neither construct nor operate new pipelines without spilling,” Larissa Liebmann, the Waterkeeper Alliance’s staff attorney, said in a statement to the press. “This injunction is necessary to protect the communities and waterways from bearing the costs of yet another irresponsible pipeline build-out.”
Legal Challenges Abound
Bayou Bridge LLC is also facing legal challenges in state court in a suit filed last year by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic against the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. Filed on behalf of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, 350 New Orleans, Gulf Restoration Network, and St. James residents, the lawsuit alleges the agency was overly lax when considering whether to permit Bayou Bridge. That case is still under review.
In addition, on January 25, the Center for Constitutional Rights argued a case asking for Bayou Bridge LLC to turn over records relating to the company’s use of eminent domain to seize land to build the pipeline. The judge ruled that Bayou Bridge did not have to turn over the documents but gave the center a chance to amend its petition.
The center’s next challenge requests that the court compel the governor’s office to release requested documents of its communications with private entities involved with the project. This request, also filed on behalf of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, 350 New Orleans, and the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, will be heard by a court on February 2.
Alexis Daniel, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, didn’t comment on the request for an injunction to stop construction on the project. Instead Daniel reiterated previous claims the company has made about the pipeline’s potential benefits to the state: “It will provide an estimated 2,500 local construction jobs that support Louisiana families, generate an estimated $17.6 million in sales tax for local businesses such as restaurants, hotels, and stores.”
Daniel didn’t mention that the company previously stated the pipeline would create only 12 permanent jobs.
Local Paper Advocates for the Pipeline
The day before the injunction was filed, The Baton Rouge Advocate weighed in with an editorial: “Our Views: Legal flak should not delay Bayou Bridge pipeline project.”
Dean Wilson, executive director of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, next to a legacy cypress tree in the basin that will been cut down if the pipeline is built.
“It reads like it was lifted from a list of industry talking points,” Dean Wilson, executive director of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, told me. The Atchafalaya Basinkeeper is submitting a response to The Advocate, calling out the newspaper for releasing what he says is misinformation.
“The paper is basically suggesting that regulators shouldn’t be questioned; that the process shouldn’t be tested even though judicial review is built into our system,” Pam Spees, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, told me.
“Most concerning about this piece,” Spees continued, “is that The Advocate is using its power and privilege as a longstanding paper-of-record in this state in an attempt to mute the voices and concerns of Louisiana residents and organizations who are exercising their First Amendment rights to petition and be heard in a matter where the odds are stacked mightily against them.” She added, “If The Advocate’s editorial were a high school civics essay, it would get a failing grade for missing the whole point of democracy.”
*Updated January 31, 2018.
Main image: Construction along the route of the Bayou Bridge pipeline west of Henderson on January 25. All photos by Julie Dermansky.