Louisiana Residents Voice Strong Opposition to Bayou Bridge Pipeline at Public Hearing

Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) received over 140 official complaints filed by citizens against a proposed oil pipeline that is slated to cut through the Atchafalaya Water Basin. Some of those complaints were heard during a public hearing held by LDEQ last night in Baton Rouge, in what amounted to a tense clash between Energy Transfer Partners, proponents of the pipeline and concerned citizens.

Environmentalists held a teach-in outside the state building last night. Image: Kendra Chamberlain

Energy Transfer Partners is an oil and gas conglomeration based in Dallas, Texas, and owns Dakota Access LLC, the firm that’s constructing the controversial Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota. In Louisiana, ETP’s assets include Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC, which is attempting to construct a new pipeline from near Lake Charles, Louisiana in Calcasieu Parish through the Atchafalaya Basin and to the West Bank of New Orleans. If built, this Bayou Bridge pipeline will connect to other pipelines laid between Texas, Illinois, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota — eventually connecting the oil fields of North Dakota to Louisiana’s refineries and its many ports.

Last night, LDEQ faced a packed house of citizens and public officials who had come to voice either opposition to, or support of, the pipeline. A network of Louisiana environmental groups gathered outside the state building to hold a “teach-in” about an hour before the hearing began. Scruffy-looking students stood beside children, senior citizens, and a group of members of some of Louisiana’s indigenous tribes, listening to testimonials and calls for unity in defending the state’s natural water resources, in the unseasonably warm weather.

A group of stiff, corporate-looking individuals in suits watched the proceedings of the teach-in from across the lawn in the fading light of the day. There was palpable tension between the groups.

Around 6 pm, attendees on both sides of the issue filed into the cramped hearing room. After all the seats had been taken, attendees lined the walls and some were forced to stand outside the room, craning their necks to hear the proceedings taking place inside.

The overwhelming majority of attendees at the hearing were in opposition to the pipeline. The group was vocal, and at times quite rowdy. Martin Mayer, chief of the regulatory branch of the New Orleans district of the Department of the Army, began the event by addressing the role of the the public hearing within the permitting process. His comments were made over distant shouts of “water is life,” heard from the teach-in outside.

The LDEQ gave the permitting applicant ETP a 15-minute presentation that served as an overview of the issues at hand. The controversial pipeline will be just 24 inches in diameter, but will run close to 163 miles throughout the state of Louisiana. At capacity, it’ll transport 480,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

“When completed, the Bayou Bridge Pipeline could supply up to 480,000 barrels a day of reliable supply diversity and connectivity to the St James Hub,” the spokesman said, referring to an existing terminal in St James, Louisiana, that serves as a gateway to other refineries in the Gulf. “These resources supply the many refineries in the Gulf Coast region. These refineries in turn, take that crude and turn it into many products, base constituents, and crude derivatives that move and power our country.”

The meeting space for the Bayou Bridge Pipeline public hearing was standing room only. Image: Kendra Chamberlain

The spokesman also outlined some of the economic benefits the pipeline will bring to the state, including some $750 million worth of investments. That includes a $30 million investment in Stupp Corporation, a local Baton Rouge-based pipeline construction business. “That’s a $30 million investment to a company here in Baton Rouge, that money stays here in our community,” the spokesman said.

ETP estimates its pipeline will also generate nearly $1.8 million in property taxes for the state; and over $17.5 million in sales taxes, which it says will be generated during the construction phase of the project. “That’s not to mention all the income coming in through the land owners for the purchase of the pipeline easement,” the spokesman said.

The pipeline will create 2,500 temporary jobs, but the spokesman said the project would only create 12 permanent jobs. The audience erupted in laughter at that revelation.

“Find another way to make 12 jobs,” said one private citizen.

In its presentation, ETP attempted to address any environmental, cultural and safety concerns the public may have about the pipeline. The spokesman said the pipeline will be constructed with walls that are thicker than current regulations require; and the company will bury the pipeline 4 feet deep in “agricultural and sensitive areas,” he said. The pipeline would consist of 23 mainline valves, each of which would be fully actuated. “That means that valves can be remotely closed from remote control center away from the pipeline,” he said.

Members of the audience, however, were not assuaged by the company’s presentation nor its promises. “It’s time we conduct business in a way to take care of our environment for future generations,” said Jody Meche, city council member and pro-temp mayor of the city of Henderson, Louisiana, which is located within the Atchafalaya Basin. “They want that pipeline because it means millions of dollars and 12 jobs. That’s all it means.”

Meche, who is also a crawfisherman, said that many of the pipelines already in place in the Atchafalaya Basin have caused harmful damage to both the local ecosystems and the citizens who rely on those ecosystems. “There are hundreds of pipelines crisscrossing the Atchafalaya Basin that have been put there in the last six to seven decades, and that has crippled our ability to make a living as commercial crawfishermen in the Atchafalaya Basin,” he said. “I appreciate the oil and gas that I can put in my truck, and all the different products that are manufactured from crude oil — we all need that and we all need the jobs that go along with that. But the amount of money that these people make on that oil and gas that are put through these pipelines, there is no reason that we should cripple our environment the way it has been crippled in the past decades.” His comments were met with a loud round of applause from the audience.

ETP maintains the pipeline will not adversely impact the delicate environment within the Atchafalaya Basin. “Nearly 100% of our cultural and biological surveys are completed,” the spokesman said. “No significant cultural resource sites will be effected by the project. No adverse effects to threatened or endangered species exist on this project.”

But Lisa Jordan, supervising attorney at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, doesn’t buy its claims — because no environmental impact statement has been made or released for the proposed pipeline. “The Corps [Army Corps of Engineers] must do an environmental impact statement [EIS] on this project,” Jordan said in her official comments made to the LDEQ. “The national Environmental Policy Act requires that the Corps conduct an EIS and fully evaluate and disclose both the potential and the real adverse environmental impacts of this project, and must examine alternatives — alternative sites, and alternative projects.”

The Atchafalaya Basin is a designated National Heritage area. Image: US Corp of Engineers.

While most of the risk associated with the pipeline comes from potential — or eventual, depending on your perspective — rupturing of the pipeline and leaking oil into the surround areas, construction of pipeline itself presents many problems to the Atchafalaya Basin.

When a trench is dug to lay down a piece of pipe within the wetlands, banks of dirt are piled up on either side of the trench. These “spoil banks” essentially act as tiny levees — preventing water flow and damming up parts of the basin — and wreak havoc on the ecological systems within the Atchafalaya Basin. The pipeline companies are supposed to remove the spoil banks after construction is completed, but somehow the basin is filled with them.

Jordan and many other attendees who made public comments at the hearing raised concerns over the lack of supervision and even regulation enforcement that has plagued past pipeline projects. “Pipelines such as the Bayou Bridge Pipeline have the potential to significantly degrade the wetlands of the basin,” Jordan said. “We’ve seen this phenomenon. Despite the fact that many of these permits issued for these pipelines require, as a condition of these pipelines, to put the soil back, it’s not done, and no one enforces it.”

Retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore, who appeared at the hearing on behalf of Louisiana’s “Green Army” network of environmental groups and eco-minded citizens, said this new pipeline is just one of a history of oil and gas projects that have proliferated in the Atchafalaya Basin over the last century without much regulatory enforcement or oversight.

“We have hundreds of miles of pipelines that run through there now. Many of them are abandoned, no one’s making the [companies] clean them up,” he said. “The spoil banks that were put in as a result of these pipelines — we have engineering reports that show they disrupt the flow of water in the Atchafalaya Basin. On top of that, our state legislature has allowed us to have 70,000 abandoned oil wells; thousands of them are in the Atchafalaya Basin.”

“We don’t have the laws, and LDEQ you do not have the staff to supervise these pipelines,” he said.

Proponents of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline offering public comment at the hearing were few and far between, and faced vocal opposition from the audience during their testimonies. Former Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who now serves as a lobbyist for a firm representing ETP, was barely able to make it through her comments over booing from the audience.

“I’m here as a representative representing Energy Transfer in support of this pipeline,” Landrieu said. “I want General Honore and all those here to know I would be testifying for this pipeline if I did not work for them.”

“You used to work for us,” someone from the audience yelled. Another shouted “Traitor” multiple times during her comments.

Landrieu argued that the pipeline offers the safest method of transporting crude oil — safer than transporting the product via truck or rail. And she said the LDEQ needs to hold the firm accountable “to the highest environmental standards.”

Landrieu, who professed herself to be “not a climate change denier,” said she understands the past damage done to the state must not be repeated. “I do believe there’s been terrible damage done to Louisiana, I’ve fought my life against it and to improve it,” she said. “There are millions and millions of gallons of crude oil and refined product moving through this country. There are many people in this room that think we should outlaw it all right now. And that might happen one day. But that is not today.”

To many who oppose the pipeline, the “not today” mantra doesn’t hold much weight in the face of climate change. “By the way, the temperature today set a new record at the Baton Rouge airport, 82 degrees on this day in January,” Honore said. “The Atchafalaya basin is in danger, the water flow is in danger, and the pipelines are part of it.”

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