It’s easy to spot the similarities between the Bayou Bridge pipeline, a proposed oil pipeline in Louisiana, and the now-infamous Dakota Access pipeline. Bayou Bridge is operated by the same company as Dakota Access, threatens water supplies for indigenous communities, and poses a risk to the local environment.
There’s another similarity, too: Opponents of the Louisiana pipeline, which include indigenous groups, environmentalists, and a local community in the path of the pipeline, aren’t backing down from a fight.
“The struggle around Standing Rock has definitely given a shot in the arm to this movement to find creative ways and to stand together in solidarity against these continuing devastating and destructive projects,” said Cherri Foytlin, state director of Bold Louisiana, a group fighting to protect the state’s natural resources.
The Dakota Access pipeline, which ships oil from the Bakken region from North Dakota to Illinois, ignited fervent opposition and a months-long protest camp at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The camp has since been razed and, after President Trump gave his approval in January, now has oil running through it. The Bayou Bridge pipeline, meanwhile, is a 162-mile proposed project that would carry 280,000 to 480,000 barrels of oil per day from Lake Charles to St. James, located on opposite sides of the state. It would connect with the broader Dakota Access pipeline network through a pipeline starting in Nederland, Texas and traveling east.
Bayou Bridge has received one permit from the state Department of Natural resources — a decision the agency is now being sued over — and is awaiting decisions from two more agencies required for construction: a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and a water quality certificate from the state Department of Environmental Quality. While the project awaits these decisions, activists across the state are taking action.
The Protest Camp
The pipeline’s route is slated to cross the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest wetland region in the United States. The route would also cross over Bayou Lafourche, a source of drinking water for 300,000 Louisiana residents — many of them members of the United Houma Nation, Foytlin said.
In June, concerned about the threat the pipeline poses to water sources and the local environment, indigenous and environmental activists set up the L’eau Est La Vie protest camp along the pipeline’s route. Foytlin said there have been people who were involved in the Dakota Access fight coming down to Louisiana to share their experiences with the protesters, and that there are people at the camp who had joined the protest in Standing Rock. The camp is staying small so far — less than 20 people, said Foytlin — but it’s doing so purposefully. There’s a stringent application process for anyone who wants to join the camp, which was put in place for a few reasons: one, the camp is made up of floating rafts, and each time new people want to join, more rafts need to be built; two, they want to ensure that people in the camp are safe from any counter-protests that may occur; and three, conditions in the swamp can be harsh.
“Swamp life is not easy,” Foytlin said. “In the same way it was so cold in North Dakota, it’s equally hot here, and there’s a lot of mosquitoes, snakes, and alligators.”
The camp will likely grow, however, and its tactics could change if the pipeline advances.
“As of right now this is a prayerful, spiritual action camp,” Foytlin said. “But at a point at which the DEQ or Army Corps decides — if they decide — that this pipeline should go through and if Energy Transfer Partners was moving forward with construction, then that is a turning point for the camp, and I think very much we would be more into direct action and putting our bodies on the line to protect our nation and our beautiful swamplands from this company and from this pipeline.”
It’s unclear, so far, when the decisions for the two remaining permits could be made. In the meantime, Bold Louisiana is working with the camp to get those opposed to the pipeline to take their concerns to the governor’s office throughout July and August, which is when the state government is taking meetings with constituents.
The fight against the pipeline isn’t limited to the swamps, however. In May, two residents of St. James Parish — Pastor Harry Joseph and Genevieve Butler — along with four Louisiana nonprofits sued the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources over its decision to grant a coastal use permit for the pipeline. In doing so, the lawsuit states, the DNR failed to consider how the pipeline would impact the residents of St. James — a location that’s already plagued by fossil fuel development.
“This community is surrounded by facilities — tank farms, other pipelines,” said Lisa Jordan, director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, which filed the lawsuit.
St. James is home to about 2,200 people and is nearly 95 percent African-American. There are eight oil terminal facilities within two square miles of the town, according to the lawsuit, and two new methanol plants are also planned for the area. Anecdotally — Louisiana only tracks regional cancer rates not local rates — illness rates are so high in the town that it’s known locally as “Cancer Alley.” The DNR didn’t do an analysis of the cumulative impact of all these facilities before granting the Bayou Bridge permit, Jordan said.
“What you are looking at is a dying community,” Butler told The Guardian
in June. “Not because of the residents, but because of the way industry is allowed to come in. And they call it progress.”
On top of adding to the industrialization of the community, construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline threatens to trap St. James residents in the case of an emergency by cutting off access to one of the town’s evacuation routes, according to the lawsuit. In granting its permit, the DNR “ignored evidence that the St. James community may be trapped in the event of an emergency and that no viable evacuation plan is in place for their safety.” The neighborhoods of Burton Lane, Chatman Town, and Freetown only have one access road out of St James — Highway 18, which is often closed down in the case of emergencies — according to the lawsuit.
“When La. Hwy. 18 is closed off in the event of an emergency, spill, accident, or release, residents in Burton Lane, Chatman Town, and Freetown are trapped and cannot escape,” the lawsuit states.
Under the state constitution, the DNR should have considered this impact on the St. James community before granting the permit, Jordan said.
A United Effort
The pipeline has brought residents of St. James, indigenous members of the protest camp, and environmentalists together in opposition. In addition to its impact on St. James and the United Houma Nation, the pipeline’s construction will destroy over 600 acres of wetlands, said Raleigh Hoke, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network, one of the organizations involved in the lawsuit. Construction of the pipeline will require dredging of these wetlands, he said, and this dredging will have a huge impact on the wetland ecosystem.
The companies behind Bayou Bridge — Energy Transfer Partners, Phillips 66, and Sunoco Logistics — state that they are committed to restoring 100 percent of the land that is affected by the pipeline.
“We are committed to constructing and operating this pipeline in a manner that puts safety first: the safety of the environment and the communities through which we pass,” Alexis Daniel, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, said in an email. “To that end, Bayou Bridge has committed that it will restore all project areas to preconstruction contours and elevations and will restore its work areas in the Atchafalaya Basin back to the natural grade as compared to the adjacent undisturbed land or wetlands.”
Still, Hoke is concerned.
“While the state of Louisiana is investing millions of dollars restoring coastal wetlands, we’re also seeing projects like this that will negatively impact wetland restoration,” Hoke said.
Louisiana is losing wetlands rapidly — between 1985 and 2010, the state lost an average of a football field’s worth of coastal wetlands every hour. The state is experiencing a rate of sea level rise that’s four times the national average, and that, in addition to fossil fuel development, is helping swallow these wetlands. This rapid rate of land loss is the reason why Louisiana is home to the United States’ first climate refugees — residents of Isle de Jean Charles, south of New Orleans, whose land is often flooded. Disasters like the BP oil spill have also exacerbated land loss and environmental degradation.
Louisiana already has a significant number of oil and gas pipelines. The Bayou Bridge, which crosses 11 parishes and about 700 water bodies, would have one of the biggest environmental impacts of all these pipelines, Hoke said. But the level of public opposition he’s seen has him hopeful that Bayou Bridge can still be stopped.
“This is one of the biggest public outcries that I’ve ever seen in opposition to a project like this in Louisiana,” he said. A lot of that has to do with the pipeline’s direct impacts on Louisiana, he said, but he thinks some of it points to a broader trend. “There’s a growing realization across the country that these pipelines have incredibly significant impacts on communities and our environment, and we can’t keep building more and more of this infrastructure.”