DONALDSONVILLE, LOUISIANA — Tour guides like to call Bayou Lafourche “the longest Main Street in the world.” The sleepy 65-mile stretch of water once lined with slave plantations now passes through dozens of small communities. More than 300,000 people rely on the bayou for drinking water.
Bayou LaFourche also happens to lie along a route of great interest to Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.
The company wants to lay pipe a few feet under the mud as part of the proposed Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Activists call the Bayou Bridge Pipeline the “tail end of the black snake” — the Dakota Access Pipeline is the head. Bayou Bridge would funnel 480,000 barrels of oil per day over the final 162 miles to refineries in St. James. On the way, it would pass through eight watersheds and many fragile wetlands.
Activists gathered on Saturday to float down Bayou LaFourche and tell households along the way what’s about to happen in their backyards.
Often, “people in the communities we’re in don’t know about these projects until they’re already a done deal. They may even already be in the ground or they don’t find out until they start digging a hole to lay the pipe,” said Meg Logue, an organizer with the environmental group 350 Louisiana.
Southern Louisiana is already laced with pipelines, many of which are broken, abandoned, or leaking. Massive piles of sediment known as spoil banks mark the graves of defunct projects companies haven’t bothered to clean up. These spoil banks dam up waterways, which in turn worsens floods and builds up pollution.
The anger over yet another pipeline bubbled over in a recent meeting in St. James Parish, a petrochemical hub where the pipeline will terminate. St. James residents packed the permit hearing in August to express their concerns about Energy Transfer Partners’ track record and the risk of further contamination of the community. St. James, a mostly black, working class region, is colloquially known as “Cancer Alley” for its high rates of illness and pollution.
The council ultimately approved the land use permit; the four white members overruled the three black members opposed to the project.
Though the pipeline project is still waiting on more permits and battling lawsuits, a company spokeswoman insisted at the meeting that they would begin construction this quarter, with the goal of starting operations by the first quarter of 2018. Some residents fear the company will simply pay the fines rather than wait for the permits to clear.
“They deal in billions. So what’s $50,000? It doesn’t mean anything,” said Shari Abshire, a Baton Rouge resident who joined the float on Saturday. “If they can hurry up and build it they will make more than that in a day rather than wait ’til all the permits are done.”
Whenever Energy Transfer Partners does eventually break ground, it will find Louisianans blocking the way — literally. Activists, spiritual leaders, and indigenous organizers have drawn inspiration from the Standing Rock camp to create the L’Eau Est La Vie (“Water is Life” in the indigenous-colonial Houma French language) camp. The small camp floats in an undisclosed location in the swamps. Anyone who wants to join the camp must be thoroughly vetted first to weed out potential infiltrators.
This secretive process isn’t borne out of paranoia; some who gathered at Standing Rock were later revealed to be affiliated with the security company working for Energy Transfer Partners. The same company also apparently hired an actor to pose as a “grassroots” pro-oil activist in videos denouncing Cherri Foytlin, a leader of the L’Eau Est La Vie movement, and other pipeline protesters. The astroturf videos seem to be part of a much larger attempt to surveil and intimidate anti-pipeline activists all over the country.
“I think they’re scared because they’re lashing out,” Logue said. “We know that they are surveilling us. We know that they’re following what we’re doing. And we pretty much operate with that understanding.”
Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren claims to be “baffled” by criticism of his projects. But the opposition has only grown along with Energy Transfer Partners’ problems. The Dakota Access Pipeline has already sprung multiple leaks since becoming operational. At the same time, the company’s Rover pipeline has set a new record for environmental violations, marked by a massive drilling fluid spill in Ohio wetlands. West Virginia also halted construction of the Rover pipeline due to environmental concerns. Energy Transfer Partners sold its shares in the pipeline soon afterward.
The L’Eau Est La Vie camp isn’t the only group that’s taken inspiration from Standing Rock. Elise Gerhart, a leader of Camp White Pine in southern Pennsylvania, also joined the float on Saturday. While L’Eau Est La Vie organizers have taken to the swamps, Gerhart and her camp have a different approach: they’ve built their camp in the boughs of three white pine trees remaining in the path of the Mariner East 2 pipeline. The camp is on Gerhart’s property, but Sunoco has claimed the land using eminent domain. A judge recently ordered Camp White Pine to disband or face arrest, but the tree sit has persisted.
Since Bayou Bridge has not yet started construction, L’Eau Est La Vie campers haven’t yet had to face a standoff like in Pennsylvania or at Standing Rock. But they’re ready. For now, they’re focused on prayer and protest, but organizers said they would physically stand in ETP’s way if necessary.
“We’re in the trees, we’re in the water, we’re on the prairie, we’re in the bayous,” Foytlin said. “There’s no way this company can keep up their horrible ways.”
Aviva Shen, a former ThinkProgress editor, is now a freelance writer in New Orleans focused on criminal justice.