Pipeline Plan Inspires Spirited Debate in Rural Louisiana

NAPOLEONVILLE, La. (CN) – About 200 protesters converged on this small village 90 minutes outside of New Orleans to raise their voices in opposition to the proposed Bayou Bridge Pipeline, an extension of the recently revived and highly controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

The rallying point for the protest Wednesday night was the Assumption Parish Community Center, where a public hearing was held on the pipeline plan.

The Obama administration had rendered the extension largely moot when it declined to approve a portion of the Dakota Access Pipeline slated to pass through land sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

The tribe and its supporters also objected to the pipeline’s planned route on the grounds that it could threaten local water supplies.

But President Donald Trump ordered a new expedited review of the project, and this week the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved its construction.

Renewed concerns over the project and its possible impacts locally inspired a large contingent of protesters and worried townspeople to gather across the street from the community center for an impromptu rally, and by the time the hearing began, opponents of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline outnumbered supporters by nearly three-to-one.

The proposed Bayou Bridge Pipeline will cut through 700 bodies of water in southeast Louisiana, including the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest remaining wetland swamp in the United States.

The Atchafalaya is known for its vast cypress-tupelo swamps and also for being the largest remaining contiguous tract of coastal cypress trees in the country.

Much of the area is already crisscrossed by thousands of pipelines carrying oil and gas to a plethora of refineries along the Gulf Coast.

Environmentalists among the protesters say the new project will cut through about 600 acres of sensitive wetlands.

But the poor local economy in the largely rural Assumption Parish also weighed heavily on the minds of hearing attendees.

Most of those who support the pipeline said it will create much needed jobs in the area.

Some pointed out that Louisiana has long been dependent on the oil and gas industry for some measure of prosperity; others said they are concerned about the nation’s reliance on foreign oil and see the pipeline as a tangible step toward energy independence.

“This pipeline is the vehicle that would drive the blood of our nation forward,” said Christian Gil, a real estate agent from nearby St. Mary Parish. “I don’t know why anyone would be against it.”

Gil said he drove 44 miles to attend the hearing as a favor to friends who feared protesters would overwhelm supporters at the hearing.

Nick James, a chemical engineer and Republican party chairman for St. John the Baptist Parish, said he drove 50 miles from his company’s plant in St. Gabriel, Louisiana to support construction of the pipeline on behalf of the party.

James said he didn’t believe construction of the pipeline is a controversial issue.

“It’s much easier to transport oil by pipeline than by rail,” he said.

The hearing was held by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, a state agency that governs coastal lands.

If the 160-mile pipeline is ultimately approved in its current form it will run through eleven parishes, from Lake Charles to St. James.

Opponents say the pipeline would, among other things, cause significant harm to the region’s crawfishing industry, harm the wetlands it crosses through, and pose a threat to drinking water.

Kerry Farber, the spokesman for Energy Transfer Partners, the company that wants to build the Bayou Bridge Pipeline began the meeting by saying the project is “exactly what our new president – President Trump – had in mind when he issued orders.”

The pipeline, Farber said, would provide “reliable, safe, economical transportation” for oil.

Former Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from New Orleans, was greeted by jeers as she took the podium after Farber.

“How much money do you take from the oil industry?” one protester yelled. “How much do you get paid?”

“Mary Landrieu is a liar!” another said.

Landrieu faced sharp criticism during her time in the Senate due to the opinion held by many that she is in the pocket of the oil and gas industry.

“I’ve supported for a long-time the idea that our country should be energy independent,” Landrieu said to even louder jeers and a few obscene gestures.

Later Wednesday evening, supporters of the pipeline left the meeting in droves as first, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, and then, someone from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade — a group that tracks pollution issues in the state —  rattled off the most recent pipeline spills and statistics they said prove Energy Transfer’s abysmal safety record.

Haywood Martin, on behalf of the Sierra Club, said pipelines always end up leaking because they are inherently flawed.

He said corporations use their “extensive corporate power to reduce our environmental laws from what they used to be.”

Pipeline opponents also claimed that once construction of the project is complete, only 12 permanent jobs will be created locally.

One gentleman, a black man from St. James Parish who spoke with a thick Cajun accent, rose and said he came to speak out against the pipeline because he had seen too many of his neighbors and friends become sick and he blamed their illnesses on underground oil storage tanks that leak.

“St. James, I love it, but they have people down there that are very sick,” he said.

“It’s a poor community, and the few very rich people they’ve had down there are gone – they are gone! But what’s going to happen to the poor people?” he added.

On Thursday night, just 24 hours after the hearing, a fire from a pipeline that exploded in St. Charles Parish left several workers injured and one missing.

Over 60 homes in the area had to be evacuated as a result of the blaze. As this story went to press on Friday afternoon, there was still no word on when the fire might be under control.

Phillips 66, which owns the pipeline that caused the fire, is also an investor in the Bayou Bridge Pipeline.