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Federal court temporarily pauses construction of controversial Louisiana pipeline

The Bayou Bridge pipeline is being constructed by the same people who built the Dakota Access pipeline.

Bald cypress trees  in Atchafalaya Swamp, Louisiana. (CREDIT: Tim Graham/Getty Images)
Bald cypress trees in Atchafalaya Swamp, Louisiana. (CREDIT: Tim Graham/Getty Images)

A federal court temporarily halted work on a controversial pipeline in Louisiana on Friday while it considers environmental challenges to the project.

The preliminary injunction against construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline — which would stretch 162 miles across Louisiana — was cheered as a major victory by environmental groups, who challenged the Army Corps of Engineers’ initial approval of the project. The pipeline represents the final leg of the larger Dakota Access pipeline system, and would bring fracked gas from North Dakota to refineries and ports along the Gulf Coast.

“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,” Jan Hasselman, an Earthjustice attorney representing plaintiffs in the case against the pipeline, said in a statement. “For now, at least, the Atchafalaya is safe from this company’s incompetence and greed.”

U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick, who ordered the injunction said that she would release more details about her reasoning in the coming days. Dick chose not to order a similar injunction in late January, preferring instead to wait for both sides to present their case in a hearing in February.

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In her decision to grant the injunction, Dick wrote that construction has been halted “in order to prevent further irreparable harm until this matter can be tried on the merits.”

The pipeline is a project of Energy Transfer Partners, the same developer behind the Dakota Access pipeline, and would cut through the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest river swamp in the U.S.

In its permit application, Energy Transfer Partners acknowledged that the pipeline would result in the permanent loss of 77 acres of wetlands and temporarily affect 171 acres of wetlands in the basin’s watershed. The pipeline would also cut within a few miles of several rice and crawfish farms. The pipeline would carry some 480,000 barrels of oil a day through Louisiana to refineries and ports along the Gulf Coast.

Environmental groups challenging the permit’s approval — including Earthjustice, Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance — argued that construction would irreparably harm the basin, which commercial crawfishers rely on for their livelihood. The challenge also argues that the pipeline would reduce the basin’s ability to act as natural flood protection for the area, placing millions who live in coastal Louisiana and Mississippi at risk. The Gulf Coast, and particularly Louisiana, is especially at risk of flooding due to coastal erosion and sea level rise.

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Energy Transfer Partners, on the other hand, argued that an injunction would cause the company “substantial financial harm” and cost anywhere from $25 million to $44 million per month in immediate financial damages to the company. Energy Transfer Partners has already appealed the court’s decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

This isn’t the first time that an Energy Transfer Partners project has been stopped due to alleged environmental harm.

In July of 2017, West Virginia regulators told Energy Transfer Partners to cease work on some portions of its Rover Pipeline, citing environmental violations. Then, in January, Pennsylvania state regulators revoked permits for construction of an Energy Transfer Partners pipeline through the state due to “egregious and willful violations” of safety and environmental laws. A few weeks later, federal regulators told Energy Transfer Partners to cease construction on its Rover pipeline in Ohio while the state conducted an investigation into a May 2017 pipeline fluid spill that damaged pristine wetlands.

The company’s Dakota Access pipeline was also plagued by delays caused by additional environmental reviews, though in that instance, a federal court allowed oil to flow through the pipeline while the reviews were taking place.