Pipeline Company Trespassed, but Expropriation Is OK, Judge Rules

ST. MARTINVILLE, La. (CN) — Bayou Bridge Pipeline trespassed on private land in the Atchafalaya Basin when it laid a pipeline without permission, a judge ruled Thursday, but he granted each of three property owners only $150 in damages and approved Bayou Bridge’s request to expropriate the land.

Thursday’s order from Judge Keith Comeaux of the 16th District Court in St. Martin Parish says Energy Transfer Partners offered the property owners $75 each for access to their land but they turned it down.

Louisiana is one of the few states where oil and gas companies can expropriate land if their project is for public benefit.

Comeaux calculated in the 11-page ruling, based on expert testimony from Energy Transfer Partners, that landowner Theda Larson Wright is entitled to 37 cents for the land and timber Bayou Bridge took and Peter K. Aalestad and his sister Katherine Aalestad should each receive $2.17.

But Comeaux decided to award each one $75 for their land and another $75 for the hardwood trees cut down, though he said, he agreed with the expert that the trees weren’t worth anything because the property is too remote.

“David Dominy testified as a real estate expert to determine the value of the land that was taken in this expropriation proceeding,” Comeaux wrote.

“David Dominy calculated the damages for the fair market value computation of the acreage lost in both the temporary and the permanent right of ways appraised at $871. (See BBP Exhibit 30) The Court has accepted and copied the fair market value computation of the total loss for the three defendants as outlined by Bayou Bridge in its brief as follows:

“Theda Larson Wright 0.0000994 (interest) x $871 (appraised value) = $0.09 (rounded up) Peter K. Aaslestad 0.0005803 (interest) x $871 (appraised value) = $0.51 (rounded up) Katherine Aaslestad 0.0005803 (interest) x $871 (appraised value) = $0.51 (rounded up).” (Parentheses in original.)

Attorneys for the landowners said they will appeal.

After the three-day trial last week, attorneys for the landowners expressed frustration that Comeaux limited the scope of the trial by not allowing discussion of environmental damage caused by pipelines and to the importance of wetlands such as the Atchafalaya Basin in protecting the Louisiana coast from erosion.

The Atchafalaya Basin is the largest river swamp in the United States.

“Pipelines contribute to increased flooding, coastal erosion, and climate change, and BBP’s extensive spill and leak record threatens a true environmental disaster. It is downright dangerous to allow corporations to take private land for environmentally destructive purposes,” Bill Quigley of Loyola University Law School, one of the attorneys representing the landowners said in a statement after the ruling.

“We want the courts to overturn the expropriation and take the pipeline out of the ground.”

Energy Transfer Partners did not immediately reply to a request for comment Thursday.

“We are pleased with the ruling from Judge Comeaux,” the company said in a statement to the Advocate newspaper, “and look forward to bringing the pipeline into service before the end of the year.”

The 162-mile Bayou Bridge Pipeline was designed to carry almost half a million gallons of crude oil a day, from Nederland, Texas to St. James Parish, roughly 50 miles from New Orleans. Louisiana has parishes rather than counties.

The three landowner plaintiffs are represented pro bono by attorneys with Loyola University, the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City and Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, a member of Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit.

They say Bayou Bridge asked for the 38-acre parcel of wetlands at issue through a lawsuit seeking expropriation in September, after the company had already made public statements that work on the pipeline was nearly complete.

“This case was always about holding a billion-dollar corporation legally accountable for its violations of the Louisiana and U.S. Constitutions and the damage it is doing to the Atchafalaya Basin,” Center for Constitutional Rights senior staff attorney Pamela Spees said in a statement.

“They made a calculated business decision that it was cheaper to violate the law than to follow it. While the court did find the company trespassed on our clients’ land, the damages award validates their business decision.”

Property owner Peter Aaslestad added: “This case was never about the money, but clearly the judge chose not to send BBP a message by adhering to their ridiculously low appraisal of the land.

“The court missed the very real value of the property as it is and the protection it provides to the public good. Their experts only spoke about their private gain, but the basin as a whole plays a larger and much more important role for the people and the state of Louisiana. I’m glad the judge ruled in our favor on the trespass, but we are not done fighting.”

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