CONVENT, La. (CN) – Residents of Louisiana’s predominantly African American “Cancer Alley” have sued the state over a permit for the final leg of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which they say threatens their water supply and will block them from escaping during emergencies.
The Rev. Harry Joseph Sr. of Mount Triumph Baptist Church in St. James is lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. Joined by four community groups and another individual plaintiff, Joseph asked the St. James Parish Court to nullify the coastal permit LDNR gave to Energy Transfer Partners — the same company that built the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Represented by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, the plaintiffs include the nonprofit Humanitarian Enterprise of Loving People (HELP), the Gulf Restoration Network, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, Bold Louisiana, and HELP member and St. James Parish resident Genevieve Butler.
Louisiana has parishes instead of counties.
At issue is the Bayou Bridge, which is slated as the final stretch of the Dakota Access Pipeline, to carry oil fracked in North Dakota to Louisiana.
This leg of the pipeline, as proposed, would stretch 162.5 miles, running through 11 parishes, from Lake Charles to St. James, and cutting through the Atchafalaya Basin, a national heritage area known for its vast cypress-tupelo swamps and for being the largest remaining contiguous tract of coastal cypress trees in the country. At least 6.6 miles of the proposed pipeline would run through its forested wetlands.
The pipeline would carry crude oil from an oil and gas hub in Nederland, Texas, to a terminal in a small, predominantly poor and African American community of roughly 2,000 people on a stretch of land along the Mississippi River 50 miles outside of New Orleans. The area is known as Cancer Alley for the inordinate number of residents with cancer. Not coincidentally, it is an area with a heavy concentration of industrial plants.
Opponents say that among other things, the pipeline would cause significant harm to the region’s crawfish industry, harm the wetlands it crosses, and threaten the drinking water supply.
They say that once construction is complete, only 12 permanent jobs will be created locally.
Despite significant turnouts of protesters at public meetings, and thousands of emails urging the state not to issue the permit, LDNR granted the permit anyway, the complaint states.
“We do not have an exit route when things happen from the Sunshine Bridge to Moonshine highway. With the new plants and Bayou Bridge coming in, there’s more traffic and more accidents. What’s going to happen then?” Joseph asked in a statement. “The pipeline is one more risk in our community that we really don’t need.”
The plaintiffs say the state “violated the Louisiana Constitution and its own guidelines by issuing” the permit.
“In issuing its decision, the Department refused to consider potential adverse environmental impacts of the project on the majority African-American residents of St. James, Louisiana, who are surrounded by crude oil terminal facilities, pipelines and associated industry,” the complaint states.
“It ignored evidence that the St. James community may be trapped in the event of an emergency and that no viable evacuation plan is in place for their safety.”
The LDNR also ignored its own “Guidelines intended to insure to insure that projects impacting the sensitive Coastal Zone have no alternative and that they minimize that impact as much as possible,” according to the complaint.
St. James is a rural community of roughly 2,100. Nearly 95 percent are African American.
Within a 2-square-miles radius in St. James are eight crude oil terminal facilities, including pipelines.
St. James neighborhoods within this radius include Burton Lane, Chatman Town and Freetown. These neighborhoods have only one road out, at the east end: state highway 18. In the event of emergencies, spills and releases, highway 18 is often closed.
“When La. Hwy. 18 is closed off in the event of an emergency, spill, accident, or release, residents in Burton Lane, Chatman Town, and Freetown are trapped and cannot escape,” the complaint states.
St. James has a high rate of spills, fires and toxic releases, among the highest in Louisiana, according to The Pipelines and Hazardous Material Safety Administration. Spills, fires and releases number roughly two a year since 2010, according to the lawsuit.
St. James does not have a fire department.
The pipeline would cut through Bayou Lafourche, a drinking water source for approximately 300,000.
Although the permit issued could have included conditions that would have decreased the chances of damage to the drinking supply, and was supposed to contain such conditions, LDNR did not issue those conditions as part of its final order, the complaint states.
“New pipelines damage our coast more than any other development. How can we expect to restore the coast while LDNR permits this destruction?” Scott Eustis, Coastal Wetland Specialist for Gulf Restoration Network, said in a statement.
The LDNR’s Coastal Use Permit allows for Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC to install the easternmost 17-mile segment of its proposed 162.52-mile-long crude oil pipeline, in the coastal zone.
The plaintiffs seek a declaration the permit was granted in error, and want it vacated.
They are represented by Lisa Jordan with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.