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Louisiana judge sides with Black residents, rules against Bayou Bridge pipeline backers

A local community says the pipeline would hurt public health and leave them vulnerable in case of emergency.

A rusted pipeline sits above the water in the area near the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the British Petroleum oil spill off the Gulf Coast on June 14, 2010 in Grand Isle, Louisiana, USA.  CREDIT: Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images
A rusted pipeline sits above the water in the area near the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the British Petroleum oil spill off the Gulf Coast on June 14, 2010 in Grand Isle, Louisiana, USA. CREDIT: Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images

A state district court judge says Louisiana violated state law in issuing a coastal permit for the construction of a controversial pipeline. The decision could once again halt construction on the Bayou Bridge pipeline’s remaining 18 miles.

In a decision made April 30, St. James Parish-based Judge Alvin Turner Jr. ruled that the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) violated portions of state law protecting both the environment and residents. The department did not properly employ Louisiana’s Coastal Zone Management Act, Turner wrote, in addition to failing to account for emergency evacuation measures.

Of particular concern is the safety of St. James’ largely Black community. The town, nicknamed “Cancer Alley,” has seen its largely rural location swiftly converted into an oil and chemical hub in recent years. Local residents have argued that, as they have only one road running in and out of their town, any pipeline failure and subsequent emergency would leave them without an emergency exit.

Turner agreed with that assessment, as well as arguments from area plaintiffs, represented by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, stating that the state’s swiftness to approve oil and gas infrastructure often cuts along racial lines.

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“The permit application does not include an emergency response plan nor does it address potential spills that may occur after construction once the pipeline is operational. The Department of Natural Resources did not consider the potential pollution, noise and traffic in the St. James community, an area which is largely populated by African Americans,” the judge wrote.

Turner said DNR must require pipeline developers to include emergency evacuation components before a permit is issued allowing construction to continue.

Part of the great Dakota Access pipeline system, the Bayou Bridge pipeline is a crude oil pipeline intended to span 162.5 miles across the state, running from Lake Charles to St. James. The pipeline will bring oil refineries in the state closer to neighboring Texas, which serves as a regional energy hub.

Approximately 280,000 barrels of crude oil would purportedly pass daily through the pipeline, coming into contact with hundreds of wetlands and waterways. That includes close proximity to drinking water for upwards of 300,000 people. The pipeline would cut through the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest U.S. river swamp.

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Pipeline supporters say it will create jobs and boost the state’s energy efforts. Opponents of the the pipeline argue the project would increase the likelihood of oil spills and could impact the local fishing industry. Crawfishermen have already suffered considerably due to the presence of the oil industry in Louisiana. The 2010 BP oil spill cost the state’s fishing industry nearly $100 million.

Energy Transfer Partners, the lead developer backing construction of the pipeline, criticized Judge Turner’s ruling in a statement made following the decision.

“We do not typically comment on pending or current litigation. We would like to reiterate, however, that we will continue to follow all of the stipulations of our permits, as we have always done,” said Alexis Daniel, a spokeswoman for the company.

In February, a federal court halted construction on the Bayou Bridge pipeline, a victory for environmental groups arguing the Army Corps of Engineers failed to account for the project’s impact on both wildlife and the local economy. That decision was overturned a month later by a U.S. appeals court and is facing a challenge filed by Earthjustice.

Local residents cheered the latest decision, which is unrelated to the other Earthjustice pending lawsuit, and praised Turner’s ruling.

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“It seems like the state agency didn’t think too much about the people who live here when it was giving Bayou Bridge this permit, and neither did Bayou Bridge. So we went to court, to somebody who we felt would listen to us, and he did,” said Harry Joseph in a statement. Joseph is pastor of Mount Triumph Baptist Church and one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs.

DNR did not say whether the state would appeal the ruling. Louisiana is also one of several states currently eyeing legislation that would make planning protests opposing pipelines a crime.