Judge Halts Construction of Pipeline Through Atchafalaya Basin

BATON ROUGE (CN) — A federal judge stopped construction Friday of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline though the Atchafalaya River Basin, one of North America’s “ecological crown jewels” and largest swamp, pending a final ruling.

U.S. District Judge Shelley Dick granted environmental groups an injunction late Friday.

“For written reasons to be assigned at a later date, the court hereby grants the preliminary injunction, and defendant [Army Corps of Engineers] and intervenors [Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC and Energy Transfer Partners] are hereby enjoined from taking any further action on this project in order to prevent further irreparable harm until this matter can be tried on the merits,” Dick wrote in a 2-page ruling and order.

The Basin is home to centuries-old tupelo and cypress trees and diverse fish and wildlife in a fragile ecological system.

Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association – West, Gulf Restoration Network, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sierra Club, represented by attorneys from EarthJustice, brought the lawsuit in January seeking the injunction.

They claimed the Corps of Engineers illegally issued permits for a 24-inch-wide, 162.5 mile-long pipeline to run from Lake Charles to St. James Parish, through the Atchafalaya Delta.

Judge Dick denied plaintiffs’ request for injunction on Jan. 30, and set a hearing for Feb. 8.

In the Jan. 30 order, Dick denied the injunction “(b)ecause plaintiffs cannot demonstrate a substantial likelihood of success on the merits at this early stage in the proceedings.”

The environmental groups requested an immediate restraining order “because the irreparable harm sought to be enjoined — destruction of mature and ancient trees in the project’s 75-foot right of way through the Atchafalaya Basin and the creation of a new and open channel — will be completed in a matter of weeks. Plaintiffs claim they reached out to the opposing parties, but they have refused to agree to suspend construction even for a few days while this motion is considered,” Dick wrote at the time.

The pipeline as proposed would connect the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota, to refineries in St. James Parish and export terminals, forming the southern leg of the Bakken Pipeline.

In their lawsuit, plaintiffs cited Energy Transfer Partner’s “abysmal safety record in the thousands of miles of pipelines it operates.”

Energy Transfer Partners, which also owns the Dakota Access Pipeline, is 60 percent owner of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline and has one of the worst safety and compliance records in the industry, plaintiffs said.

Other owners of the pipeline are Sunoco, which was fined a record $12.6 million last week by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for its violations during construction of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline, and Phillips 66.

According to the Jan. 11 lawsuit in Louisiana: “One analysis of federal reporting data —which is widely known to undercount actual spill incidents — reported that ETP and its subsidiary Sunoco Inc. were responsible for 329 ‘significant’ pipeline incidents between 2006 and 2017 — a rate of over two a month — losing over a million gallons of crude oil and imposing an estimated financial cost of over $67 million. No data is available on smaller accidents.”

The environmental groups also claimed the Corps of Engineers violated the Clean Water Act, the Rivers and Harbors Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in declaring that the pipeline “would not have a significant impact on the environment” and by not requiring a full environmental impact statement.

During expert testimony at the Feb. 8 hearing, wetlands scientists, environmentalists and crawfishermen showed photos of trees, “the Noah’s Ark of the swamp — providing habitat for migratory birds, bears, bats and numerous other wildlife,” that already had been shredded to mulch and discarded into the slow-moving waters of the Basin to clear a path for the pipeline.

Experts testified that once the old-growth trees are gone, there is little chance they will come back. Losing the trees destroys habitat for wildlife in the swamp and sets off chain reactions: Destroying the trees widens the waterways, which allows more sediment to flow in, which stagnates the water, causing hypoxia, or areas of depleted oxygen.

Experts testified that construction of the pipeline would decrease natural flood protection in the Basin, which acts as the major floodway project that protects millions of people in coastal Louisiana and the Mississippi River Valley from Mississippi flood waters.

Pipeline supporters say pipelines are the most efficient means of transporting oil.

Lead counsel Jan Hassleman, with EarthJustice in Seattle, said that the Feb. 8 ruling would affect only the Atchafalaya Basin portion of the pipeline. Hasselman said in a statement Friday that the “court’s ruling recognizes the serious threat this pipeline poses to the Atchafalaya Basin, one of our country’s ecological and cultural crown jewels.”

Hassleman continued: “For now, at least, the Atchafalaya is safe from this company’s incompetence and greed.”

Energy Transfer Partners spokeswoman Alexis Daniel said in an email Friday evening that the company would not comment until the judge issues a written opinion.

Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Ricky Boyett said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

But Dean Wilson, executive director of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, rejoiced at Dick’s ruling. “After years of witnessing the systematic destruction of the Basin with impunity by these companies, while our government turns a blind eye, it felt good to finally tell our story to a person with the power to make a difference,” he said.

The parties did not reply over the weekend when asked how far construction had proceeded through the Atchafalaya Basin when the injunction was issued Friday.

In his Jan. 29 request for a restraining order, Hasselman noted that in a Jan. 25 phone call to the Corps of Engineers, Energy Transfer Partners said construction through the Atchafalaya Basin had begun and “anticipated that most of all of the [tree] clearing through the Basin would be completed by the middle of February. At that time, the company planned to begin constructing ditches and putting the pipeline in place.”

Judge Dick’s order calls for construction through the Basin to halt immediately, until the case has been decided by summary judgment. She did not indicate Friday when that will be.

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