Louisiana Judge Rules Bayou Bridge Pipeline's Coastal Use Permit Is Illegal

A judge has ruled that the coastal use permit issued for nearly 18 miles of Energy Transfer Partners’ Bayou Bridge pipeline is illegal because the state did not require it to take into consideration impacts the project would have on St. James, a historic and predominately black community located at the tail end of the 163-mile project.

On Friday, District Judge Alvin Turner, Jr. ruled that the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (LDNR) failed to follow state guidelines when issuing a coastal use permit to Bayou Bridge Pipeine LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners.

The pipeline is projected to carry nearly a million barrels of crude oil a day under the St. James community, which is already surrounded by tank farms and other oil and gas infrastructure.

“Here in St. James we are in desperate need for an evacuation plan that will allow us to get out of St. James fast when something spills or explodes,” said Genevieve Butler, a St. James resident and plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources for not considering the needs of her community when it granted the pipeline permit.

Above: Pastor Harry Joseph of the Mount Triumph Baptist Church in St. James, Louisiana (Photo by Karen Savage)

If completed, the Bayou Bridge pipeline would run from Lake Charles to St. James Louisiana, cutting through 11 Louisiana parishes and crossing 700 bodies of water. It is part of a larger Energy Transfer Partners project slated to connect the controversial Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota to refineries in St. James Parish and nearby export terminals.

The suit was filed last year by Pastor Harry Joseph, Sr., Genevieve Butler, Humanitarian Enterprise of Loving People (H.E.L.P.), Gulf Restoration Network, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and Bold Louisiana, to appeal the issuance of the coastal use permit.

"We're excited, the whole community's excited and we're going to push this - they've got to actually do it, they can't say they're trying, we need to have an actual evacuation route in place," said Pastor Harry Joseph from the St. James community.

In his ruling, Judge Turner said the LDNR’s issuance of ETP’s coastal use permit was in violation of Louisiana’s Coastal Use Guidelines, which require companies working in Louisiana’s environmentally sensitive coastal zone to obtain special coastal use permits.

Turner said the LDNR failed to require ETP to adhere to two strict guidelines created to minimize impacts to nearby communities. Instead, the DNR granted the permit based on a less stringent guideline, “thereby eliminating the increased protections which should have been afforded prior to issuing a permit to transport crude oil through the neighborhoods of St. James Parish and coastal areas.”

He also said the Department failed to articulate any rational basis for not forcing ETP to adhere to the stricter guidelines during the permitting process.

Turner ordered the LDNR “to require Bayou Bridge Pipeline, LLC to develop effective environmental protection and emergency or contingency plans relative to evacuation in the event of a spill or other disaster.”

ETP is required to obtain a coastal use permit for the nearly 18-mile stretch of the pipeline that is proposed to run through Louisiana’s sensitive coastal areas known as the Coastal Management Zone.

“District 5, the St James community, is Louisiana’s center for pipeline disasters—their ditches run with oil. And yet the state has not given the people of St. James the tools to protect themselves from harm,” said Scott Eustis with the Gulf Restoration Network. “This pipeline construction is filling drainage ditches from an African American community that already floods in heavy rain. DNR has ignored us, and ignored St James, but they can’t ignore this injustice any longer.”

In an emailed statement, ETP spokesperson Alexis Daniel said the company typically does not comment on pending or current litigation. “We would like to reiterate, however, that we will continue to follow all of the stipulations of our permits, as we have always done,” said Daniel. 

In addition to the coastal use permit, ETP was required to obtain permits from the Army Corp of Engineers (ACE) and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) prior to construction on the 163-mile project, which began in January.

This ruling does not affect those permits, but a similar suit filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could.

In January, a group of environmental organizations filed suit against the Army Corps, alleging that it acted arbitrarily and capriciously when issuing its permit for the pipeline. The groups contend that the Corps violated the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by issuing the permit without an environmental impact statement.

In a ruling designed to “prevent further irreparable harm to Atchafalaya Basin,” U.S. District Judge Shelley Dick in February temporarily stopped work in the Atchafalaya Basin until the resolution of that lawsuit. ETP appealed and in March, an appeals court allowed the company to resume work. Last week, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the case. A final decision is expected in the coming weeks.

Last week, citizen monitors, who call themselves water protectors, say they observed several potential permit violations near the St. James community where sediment controls were absent or highly compromised. Sediment control is necessary to prevent dirt and rocks used during construction from entering nearby ditches, which can lead to blocked culverts and increased flooding.

"It's clear they are hurrying up construction in St. James Parish. They drove over fencing and culverts - the work is sloppy and demonstrates more than ever the vulnerability of St. James Parish in building this pipeline," said Sarah Howard of Louisiana Bucket Brigade, who was one of the monitors.

ETP and its subsidiaries have been plagued with violations. According to a recent report, the construction of the Mariner and Rover pipelines in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia has resulted in over 2.4 million gallons of spills, over 100 notices of violations and other non-compliance issues, and 6 stop work orders.

In February, ETP’s subsidiary, Sunoco Inc. was fined a record $12.6 million by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for violations incurred during the construction of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline. Last year ETP was fined millions for violations during construction of the Rover Pipeline.

"It seems like nearly every time you get news on this company, it's because Energy Transfer Partners has been a bad actor to a community somewhere. They have spilled, poisoned, destroyed, and injured their way across this country,” said Cherri Foytlin, co-founder of the L’eau Est La Vie resistence camp, which has engaged in several non-violent direct actions against the pipeline.

“I have hope that this decision will bring the focus back to where it belongs, on the people who will suffer the biggest burden while receiving the smallest benefit should this destructive project be allowed to continue."



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.