NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The release of documents obtained through a public records request this week underscored conservationists’ suspicion of a close relationship between a pipeline company and government officials.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, on behalf of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, released 17 documents on Thursday that they obtained from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade works with communities near state oil refineries and chemical plants to address air quality issues.
Among other things, the documents appear to show that a consulting firm employed by Energy Transfer Partners, part owner of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, drafted answers to public comments related to the proposed pipeline project and sent them to officials at the Army Corps of Engineers and the DEQ.
Marshall Olson, environmental project manager for the consulting firm Perennial Environmental Services out of Houston, on March 17, 2017 sent an email with the subject line “Bayou Bridge Pipeline Project (MVN-2015-02295-WII) – Response to public comments” to James Little with the Army Corps of Engineers. Olson attached a document containing 13 pages of “draft” responses to public comments.
“James, Please find attached the draft responses to the second round of public comments received from January 12, 2017 to January 31, 2017 for the Bayou Bridge Pipeline Project,” the email says.
“As you are aware, there were a number of form letters that were received during the second comment period that were the exact same as the form letters received during the initial public comment period,” Olson’s email states. “Therefore, the last row of the response matrix references the form letter responses provided in the initial set of draft responses to public comments that were submitted to you on January 6, 2017. For your reference, I have attached an updated version of the initial response matrix to this email as well. Please let us know if you have any questions or need any additional information.”
Five days later, Monica Howard, director of environmental science for ETP, forwarded the email to Elizabeth Hill, environmental scientist staff on the water permits division of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
“FYI, if this is of any assistance in your closing out the public comments you are addressing,” Howard wrote.
Another email referenced Hill as “water permit writer” for the pipeline’s proposal.
DEQ spokesman Gregory Langley was adamant that employees for the DEQ, and not the consulting firm, responded to the public comments.
“They don’t write any of that,” Langley said, referring to the consulting firm in a phone call Friday. “They may have been doing their own responses hoping to get us to respond the same way… and the language could be similar. But they don’t write the responses themselves. That was all written here in this building by people from LDEQ.”
Langley speculated that the public submitted about 100,000 comments during the comment period. He said at least 24,000 of those pertained to water quality certification, which applies when a pipeline plans to cross wetlands. The DEQ was tasked with replying to those comments.
Langley declined to estimate how many comments were submitted in opposition to the pipeline.
But Anne Rolfes, Louisiana Bucket Brigade founder, said in a summary of the organization’s findings that the comments she saw were “overwhelmingly” in opposition to the pipeline. She also characterized the agency’s final written responses to the comments as “verbatim” to the “draft” responses Olson had offered and pointed to the final draft alongside the obtained emails as proof.
In another email obtained through the records request, Hill joked about environmentalists’ concerns over the pipeline. “I’m sure this like every other project is going to cause global warming and rising sea levels,” she wrote.
Hill did not reply Friday to a phone call requesting comment.
“Notably,” Rolfes said of the records released, “there were no emails produced showing serious discussion or concern at the agency about the extensive record of spills, leaks, and explosions of the companies behind the Bayou Bridge project.”
She said the newest documents “reveal a high level of access to and coordination between Energy Transfer Partners and government employees, in contract to access to regulators and public officials by pipeline opponents.”
“The documents reveal an unacceptable disparity in the public agencies’ treatment of pipeline and industry representatives in contrast to the communities they’re obligated to serve,” Pamela Spees, Center for Constitutional Rights senior staff attorney, said.
“These documents also suggest there is more to the story, and we’ll continue to ask Louisiana public institutions for more information,” she added.
The Bucket Brigade has also taken issue with a January 2017 meeting between Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, who is now a pipeline project consultant, which the governor’s office did not disclose as part of its response to an earlier records request.
Neither the governor’s office nor Landrieu replied Friday to emailed requests for comment.
On Feb. 23, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick suspended construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline through the Atchafalaya Basin, North America’s largest remaining swamp, so she could weigh the merits of a lawsuit filed in January by attorneys for EarthJustice on behalf of five environmental advocacy groups claiming the Corps of Engineers illegally permitted the pipeline when they neglected to conduct an assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act.
In issuing the injunction, Dick cited concerns regarding “permanent harm to the environment that has been established as a result of the pipeline construction.”
Following two environmental assessments conducted by the Corps of Engineers to decide what impact the pipeline would have – one mandated under the River and Harbors Act and another under the Clean Water Act – the Corps ultimately decided a third assessment, required under the National Environmental Policy Act, was unnecessary before it issued the permit in December, 2017.
Pipeline construction began soon after.
Ricky Boyett, public affairs chief for the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, declined to comment in an email Friday.
The Bayou Bridge pipeline is a joint venture between Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66. Energy Transfer Partners also owns the controversial Dakota Access pipeline. The Bayou Bridge pipeline will connect the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota with Louisiana refineries and export terminals.
ETP also used Perennial Environmental Services to obtain its permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Proponents of the pipeline say it will fuel “energy independence” and create jobs.
The Bucket Brigade and other environmental groups have pointed to Energy Transfer Partners’ dubious track record of spills and regulation violations for its existing pipelines.
For example, the Dakota Access Pipeline had five spills in its first six months of operation, they say.
Also, they say construction of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline in Pennsylvania was suspended for failure to comply with building requirements, while construction of the Rover Pipeline in Ohio was suspended after emails revealed a historic home was purposely demolished by the company to avoid additional costs and regulatory battles.