Construction on Bayou Bridge Pipeline Continues Despite Judge’s Order, Water Protectors File Petition, Use Civil Disobedience to Stop Work

Construction on the controversial Bayou Bridge pipeline is continuing near the historic and predominately black community of St. James despite a judge’s ruling that the state illegally granted the company a coastal use permit by not considering impacts the project will have on area residents.

The ruling was issued earlier this month by District Judge Alvin Turner, Jr. and community members -- who say they were initially overjoyed -- now say the continuing refusal of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources to enforce the judge’s order and halt construction is like a slap in the face.

"For so long we had no one who would help us or listen, and now Judge Turner has ruled in our favor," said Pastor Harry Joseph, President of the H.E.L.P. Association of St. James.

"The Department of Natural Resources needs to enforce the law and protect us," said Joseph, a plaintiff in the suit, which was filed last year by St. James residents and local environmental groups against the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (LDNR) for violating state law when issuing a coastal use permit to Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC, an Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) subsidiary.

Above: Construction continues on the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana's coastal zone near St. James, Louisiana on May 24, 2018. (Photo by Karen Savage)

Turner ruled that the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (LDNR) failed to follow state guidelines when issuing the coastal use permit. A coastal use permit – which specifically covers Louisiana’s environmentally sensitive coastal zone -- is required for the last 18 miles of the project.

Construction projects in the coastal zone involving dredge and fill work, bulkhead construction, shoreline maintenance and other development are required to demonstrate that they will be performed in a manner that will protect residents and minimize damages to wetlands and aquatic resources.

In his ruling, Turner said the LDNR failed to require ETP to consider impacts the project would have on the environment and community in St. James, which is located in the coastal zone. He ordered the LDNR to require ETP to “develop effective environmental protection and emergency or contingency plans relative to evacuation in the event of a spill or other disaster.”

If completed, the 163-mile Bayou Bridge pipeline will cut through 11 Louisiana parishes and cross 700 bodies of water. It is part of a larger ETP project slated to connect the controversial Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota to Louisiana’s export terminals.

Situated at the tail end of the project, St. James’ Burton Lane community is already surrounded by tank farms and refineries. In the event of a disaster, residents could be trapped.

"The judgement states that there's no permit until an evacuation plan is in place, and yet LDNR is allowing construction to block the only possible way in and out of Burton Lane during a chemical incident. It's unconscionable for this company to defy the order, to operate without a permit in St James, and to endanger Louisiana residents in St James," said Scott Eustis, community science director for the Gulf Restoration Network, which is a plaintiff in the case.

Patrick Courreges, communications director for the LDNR, said state permitting guidelines were properly followed and said his agency doesn’t have the authority to stop work on the permit.

“The judge made the ruling saying that no, the permit should be vacated and remanded back to our office of coastal management. There’s a 30-day window from the point of that judgement being issued that we have the opportunity to appeal it during that time. The judgement’s not fully executed because we have that window of time to appeal and we have appealed and therefore until and unless the appeal is exhausted, the permit stands, even though there’s the judgement out there against it,” said Courreges.

“The permit will stand barring the plaintiffs who filed suit seeking and gaining an injunction,” he said, adding that judge’s ruling will not be final until the appeals process is complete.

A hearing on the LDNR’s appeal and the plaintiffs’ opposition to that appeal -- including a petition by plaintiffs to stop all construction in the coastal zone until permitting issues are resolved -- will be held on July 3.

Meanwhile, St. James residents and their allies – who call themselves water protectors -- worry about what could happen between now and then and say work has not only continued, but is continuing at an accelerated pace.

ETP spokesperson Alexis Daniel said allegations that work is accelerating in the coastal zone are false.

“Our construction activities have been and will continue to adhere to the stipulations of our permits,” said Daniel, who added that the company is committed to the safe construction and operation of the pipeline.

Water protectors contend that the judge’s ruling invalidates ETP’s coastal zone permit and say it is the state’s responsibility to enforce the ruling and force ETP to stop work. They also say they are willing to engage in civil disobedience if the LDNR fails to enforce the judge’s ruling.

"[L]DNR's duty as a regulatory agency is to hold companies accountable and protect the people and environment of Louisiana," said Meg Logue with 350 New Orleans.

"This duty is especially crucial when you have a rogue operator like Energy Transfer Partners, with a history of defying regulators and court orders. Who are the people of Louisiana supposed to turn to when all of the agencies with authority pass the buck?” said Logue.

Water protectors temporarily stopped work near St. James last week when about 20 individuals walked onto an active construction site and attempted to hand-deliver the judge’s ruling to an ETP supervisor. When the supervisor refused to identify themselves, the group left peacefully and work resumed.

A few days later, water protectors returned, again stopping work and demanding construction be halted until an evacuation route is in place.

St. James Parish Sheriff’s Department Officer Allen Brown, who responded to a call by the pipeline company, initially agreed that work should stop.

“My understanding is they’re not supposed to be doing anything,” said Brown, after reading the judge’s ruling.

His interpretation was overruled a few minutes later by Lieutenant Prentiss Woodfork, who along with other officers conferred with ETP representatives and backpedaled, indicating that the matter needed further interpretation and clarification by lawyers and the court.

Woodfork then told the group to leave or they would be arrested for trespassing.

Most water protectors left the site, but two women refused to leave, sitting peacefully on the wooden construction matting and voicing their frustration that the state is prioritizing the financial interests of the pipeline company over the protection of Louisiana residents.

Both were arrested a short time later and the sheriff’s department allowed ETP to resume construction.

“Until I hear something from a judge or until my supervisor hears something from the judge, that’s between y’all and the judge. All I’m enforcing right now is the trespassing,” said Woodfork when asked if the company would be allowed to continue to work.

Water protectors say continued construction on the pipeline exposes both the environment and the local community to irreparable harm.

“St. James residents haven’t been listened to,” said Alicia Cooke, with 350 New Orleans, who along with Jackie Bang was charged with trespassing on an immovable structure.

“We’ve been fighting this pipeline on every level through every legal means for over a year. I’m not sure how many more ways Louisianans can say we don’t want this or need this.”


Disclosure: Karen Savage is an investigative journalist currently embedded with the L'eau Est La Vie resistance camp in Louisiana. Karen has been reporting and building relationships and sources along the Gulf Coast for more than 10 years. In 2013, she co-authored a story with Cherri Foytlin, co-founder of L'eau Est La Vie.