LAKE CHARLES, La. (CN) — A Louisiana appeals court ruled Thursday that Bayou Bridge Pipeline, which was constructed as the final stretch of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, “trampled” landowners’ rights when it cut across their properties without their permission.
The company cut down hardwood trees, trenched and laid pipelines without ever first receiving authorization from property owners. Only after the property owners complained, the company sought the land it desired through eminent domain.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeal for the state of Louisiana reversed a lower court’s ruling that the plaintiffs were entitled to just $150 apiece for their land and awarded them instead $10,000 plus legal fees for violation of the landowners’ due process rights. But the court said the pipeline company was entitled to take the land through eminent domain, since doing so is legal under Louisiana law.
Louisiana is one of the few states where oil and gas companies can expropriate land if their project is deemed to be for public benefit.
Judge Keith Comeaux of the 16th District Court in St. Martin Parish in a December 2018 order calculated, based on expert testimony from Energy Transfer Partners, that landowner plaintiff Theda Larson Wright was entitled to 37 cents for the land Bayou Bridge cleared and built the pipeline under and Peter K. Aalestad and his sister Katherine Aalestad should each receive $2.17.
But Comeaux awarded them each $75 apiece instead for the land and another $75 for the trees Bayou Bridge cut down, though he agreed with the expert that the trees were worthless because the properties are so remote.
The Atchafalaya Basin through which the Bayou Bridge Pipeline runs, is the largest remaining river swamp in North America, containing many old growth trees and endangered species.
The 44-page order issued Thursday by the Third Circuit five-judge panel said Bayou Bridge Pipeline “trampled” the property owners’ due process rights as landowners when it “consciously ordered construction to begin” on their properties.
Bayou Bridge “eviscerated the constitutional protections laid out to specifically protect those property rights. Therefore, we find the trial court committed legal error when it failed to compensate Defendants when BBP tread upon those constitutionally recognized rights,” the order said.
The court found that Bayou Bridge violated the property owners’ rights and “[t]o decide otherwise would give entities such as BBP the unrestrained ability to decide whether another citizen’s property rights can be restricted and makes a mockery of the state’s carefully crafted laws of expropriation.”
Bayou Bridge Pipeline is a joint-venture between Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, and Phillips 66.
It will be the final leg connecting the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota with Louisiana export terminals and was designed to carry almost half a million gallons of crude oil a day across 11 Louisiana parishes and 700 water bodies, from Nederland, Texas to St. James Parish, roughly 50 miles from New Orleans.
Earlier this month, in a win for environmentalists and others who have fought for years to stop the pipeline, a federal judge ordered that Dakota Access drain its pipeline until an environmental report on how crude oil running beneath Lake Oahe along the Missouri River would affect the environment.
The landowners were happy with Thursday’s ruling, but they also expressed disappointment that their case did not pose a bigger challenge to the law of eminent domain.
“When we first considered taking on BBP, it was conventional wisdom that you couldn’t win against a pipeline company in Louisiana,” landowner Peter Aalestad said in a statement Thursday, “but we wanted to do what was right regardless. For others out there thinking they can’t win, I hope this victory shows that they can, and that these companies cannot simply do what they want, run roughshod over people’s rights, and get away with a small fine ass the cost of doing business.”
Landowner Theda Larson Wright called the decision Thursday a victory for all landowners.
“All over the country, pipeline companies have destroyed people’s land, often without even attempting to get permission, and dared the landowners to speak up,” she said in a statement.
The landowners are represented by Pam Spees and Astha Sharma Pokharel at the Center for Constitutional Rights, Misha Mitchell at Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, and Bill Quigley.
Alexis Daniel, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, said in an email that the company does not comment on pending litigation.
“We are proud of this project, which has been safely operating since March of 2019,” Daniels said.
The Third Circuit panel was comprised of Circuit Judges Sylvia R. Cooks, Billy Howard Ezell, Shannon J. Gremillion, D. Kent Savoie and Jonathan W. Perry. Judge Ezell dissented in part.