BATON ROUGE, La. (CN) – A Louisiana judge ruled Thursday that a pipeline company has no obligation under the state’s public-records law to hand over documents about its claim to easements across hundreds of residents’ private properties.
“There is nothing that shows here that the records plaintiffs seek are public records,” East Baton Rouge District Court Judge Michael Caldwell said in his ruling from the bench Thursday morning.
Three environmental groups – Atchafalaya Basin Keeper, Louisiana Bucket Brigade and 350 New Orleans – argued before Judge Caldwell that records about Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC’s land grabs along the route of the proposed pipeline must be disclosed.
In a lawsuit filed last week on behalf of the groups by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, the environmentalists claimed 400 parcels of private property are being taken for the construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline.
Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC – which is majority owned by Energy Transfer Partners, which also owns the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as by Phillips 66 and Sunoco – has tried to seize even unwilling homeowners’ land on the pretext “it has legal authority to exercise eminent domain and take private property because it is a ‘common carrier’ under Louisiana law and that its proposed pipeline is ‘in the public interest and necessity,’” according to the complaint.
The conservation groups claim that, in 2016, before it received the required permits for the proposed pipeline, BBP “began pursuing easements and/or servitude across privately-owned property and expropriating the properties when negotiations with landowners failed.”
Judge Caldwell ruled Thursday that because BBP is neither a nonprofit nor an entity of the state, it is under no obligation to turn over records about its eminent-domain requests.
Before handing down his decision, Caldwell acknowledged the pipeline is a “hot topic” and a “matter of great public interest.”
“But what is before me today does not address the merits – whether the pipeline is or is not a good idea,” the judge said. “It is only a public-records request.”
He began by looking at the relevant statute, which includes any “public or quasi-public nonprofit corporations” in the definition of public bodies that are subject to the open-records law.
“No one has alleged – and I don’t think anyone will – that this is a nonprofit,” Caldwell said of BBP.
Caldwell went on to say “there is no showing here that the state of Louisiana would go in and build a pipeline” on its own.
In fact, the judge surmised, “I think they would be prohibited from building a pipeline.”
Caldwell said he relied on precedent from a previous ruling, State v. Smith, a criminal proceeding brought against four people who ran a nonprofit from which they were accused of embezzling money.
The judge said State v. Smith established four criteria for determining whether an entity is public body: whether it was created by the Legislature; if its powers are specifically defined by the Legislature; whether its property belongs to the public; and if the entity’s functions are performed solely for the public benefit.
“None of those criteria have been met,” Caldwell said. “There is nothing that shows here that the records plaintiffs seek are public records.”
The judge said of the public-benefit factor, “I’m sure that Bayou Bridge Pipeline’s hope is that it will be the sole financial beneficiary” of the pipeline project.
William Quigley – a professor and director of the law clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Center at Loyola University, and one of the attorneys representing the environmental groups – said after the ruling that he was unsure yet whether the plaintiffs would amend their complaint.
Quigley said the groups first want more information on how many people are still fighting to keep their private land, or who say they have been lied to by BBP and Energy Transfer Partners.
“If a big corporation is coming to Louisiana and forcing people to give up their property, we want to know,” Quigley said. “That is what the public-record request is about.”
The attorney said another concern is BBP and ETP’s alleged surveillance of environmentalists.
Quigley mentioned the “dastardly deeds of TigerSwan,” the private-security firm that he said terrorized environmental activists along the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline. He added that TigerSwan has applied for permits to operate in Louisiana as well but that the firm denies it currently has a presence there.
The environmental groups said after the hearing they plan to appeal Caldwell’s ruling and are eager “to know what the corporation has to hide.”
Anne Rolfes, director of plaintiff Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said in a conference after Thursday’s hearing that “Bayou Bridge will not escape public scrutiny for its rogue efforts to strip hundreds of Louisiana families of their land for their own private profit.”
“It’s a new day in Louisiana,” Rolfes said. “Communities across the proposed pipeline route have resisted and will continue to resist, and we will not back down from defending our land from this destructive pipeline.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they are unsure how many property owners continue to struggle with BBP over land disputes.
Attorneys for BBP did not comment on Caldwell’s decision.
Last week, BBP filed an injunction complaint against landowners along the pipeline route in New Orleans state court, saying the landowners – White Castle Lumber and Shingle Company Ltd. and Jeanerette Lumber & Shingle Co. LLC – were trying to keep the pipeline from coming across their land, even after providing an easement for it.
The lawsuit said the lumber and shingle companies arbitrarily decided the easement had already expired.
The companies did not return a phone call seeking more information. A hearing in the case scheduled for Thursday was stayed, indicating a possible settlement.