ST. MARTINVILLE, La. (CN) — Attorneys representing landowners in the Atchafalaya Basin will meet in a pretrial hearing Friday with attorneys for Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC, the corporation they say trespassed on their land, cut down hardwood trees, dug trenches and buried a crude oil pipeline without their permission. At issue, attorneys say, is the larger issue of why Louisiana allows corporations to expropriate private property by eminent domain in the first place.
Although Bayou Bridge asked for the 38-acre parcel of wetlands at issue through a lawsuit seeking eminent domain in September, the company already had made public statements that work on the pipeline was nearly complete, the landowners say.
The company did not file the lawsuit in eminent domain until after landowner Peter K. Aaslestad filed for an injunction in July in St. Martin Parish Court to keep Bayou Bridge off the property, because he had discovered them working on it.
The 162-mile Bayou Bridge Pipeline is jointly owned by Entergy Transfer Partners, which merged with Sunoco in 2012, and Phillips 66. It 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. Louisiana has parishes rather than counties.
Energy Transfer Partners also built and owns the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. The Bayou Bridge Pipeline will be the final leg connecting the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota with Louisiana export terminals.
St. Martin Parish Judge Keith Comeaux will rule from the bench after the Friday hearing. Depending on how he rules, trial is set to begin Nov. 27.
Eminent domain gives a government agency permission to expropriate private property for public use, in exchange for compensation.
The hundreds of landowners in this case are represented pro bono by attorneys with Loyola University, the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City and Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, a member organization of Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and protect water.
The attorneys argue that since Bayou Bridge Pipeline is not a governmental entity but a for-profit agency it should not be allowed to expropriate land under eminent domain.
“If taken at its own words, BBP [Bayou Bridge Pipeline] is not a quasi-public corporation common carrier working in the public interest to serve and fulfill a public purpose and necessity, and therefore not a proper party to bring an expropriation suit necessitating that the matter should be dismissed with prejudice,” a pretrial memorandum on behalf of the landowners says.
The landowners say the entire process of allowing oil pipeline companies access to private land in Louisiana is unconstitutional.
“They constructed this pipeline without the legal authority to do so,” said Bill Quigley, an attorney and law professor at Loyola University, during a telephonic news conference Tuesday.
“The truth is that Bayou Bridge shouldn’t have taken any of these steps until they went to court. Unfortunately, it’s a reflection on the Louisiana government as well,” Quigley said.
Louisiana is one of the only states that do not require a company to get permits and permission from the state before laying pipeline.
“Louisiana gives private companies free license to put pipelines wherever they want,” Quigley said.
Property owner Katherine Aaslestad, Peter Aaslestad’s sister, said she is “outraged that a private company has trespassed upon” her land and destroyed it.
She wants to encourage other landowners to stand up for their rights.
“I just want to emphasize that the wetlands are very important to our family,” she said.
“We know so much now about the fragility of the wetlands, and also of the role the wetlands play in preserving in land in Louisiana and I want to use my voice to defend them.”
Many of the landowners say their great-grandparents purchased land in the Atchafalaya Basin with the expectation of preserving it for future generations.
Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a nonprofit that works with communities near oil refineries, said she’s called many landowners along the pipeline route to discuss what Bayou Bridge discussed before gaining access to private land, and that some of the things the company told landowners “are outright lies.”
For instance, Rolfes said, the company claims it is transporting oil for the purpose of the country’s energy independence, though much the oil is for transport to other countries.
Also, Rolfes said, Bayou Bridge says pipelines are safer than other modes of transportation, but, “They have no proof to back this up.”
She called the idea of oil being for the public good a “fairytale.”
“The oil industry is using the same talking points they used in the ‘70s — that it is for public good,” Rolfes said. But the industry profits by polluting the land and hurting the crawfish and other sea life, she added.
Quigley said the landowners’ attorneys will argue that the Bayou Bridge Pipeline should be stopped and the land returned to its original condition. Also, that the pipeline was operating illegally to begin with and should never have been permitted in the first place.
He said the burden of proof is on Bayou Bridge to prove it has a public purpose.
If Judge Comeaux decides, “Well, the pipeline was already in the ground and there is nothing we can do about it,” Quigley said, then his clients will ask for damages.
“This is unprecedented in Louisiana,” Quigley said, “but it is what we are seeking. We are saying, ‘You just can’t do this.’”
According to the pretrial memorandum, Energy Transfer Partners confirmed in a telephonic hearing on Oct. 25 that the pipe is already in the ground.
On its website, Bayou Bridge refers to the pipeline as a “critical infrastructure project.”
Energy Transfer Partners did not reply to emailed requests for comment. Its spokeswoman Alexis Daniel said in a September email that the company’s promise not to enter the 38-acre parcel of land until after today’s hearing had “no impact to our construction schedule or the timing of our project completion.”