The water protectors defend the bayou

The tail end of the Dakota Access Pipeline would cross 700 bodies of water and miles of fragile wetlands in Louisiana.

The Bayou Bridge Pipeline would cross the Atchafalaya Basin, a sensitive wetland already being degraded by old pipelines. CREDIT: Flickr/Creative Commons
The Bayou Bridge Pipeline would cross the Atchafalaya Basin, a sensitive wetland already being degraded by old pipelines. CREDIT: Flickr/Creative Commons

BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA —The Dakota Access Pipeline standoff between Energy Transfer Partners and the Standing Rock water protectors may be on pause for now. But another clash is brewing over a related pipeline by the same company, 1500 miles away.

“If you thought you saw some stuff up in North Dakota, you just get to the bayous!” said Cherri Foytlin, an indigenous activist and leader of the environmental group Bold Louisiana. “Our campers walk on water.”

This battle cry was greeted by hoots and cheers from the crowd gathered outside a public hearing Thursday to protest the proposed Bayou Bridge Pipeline.

The Bayou Bridge Pipeline would form the tail end of the now infamous Dakota Access route. The Dakota Access Pipeline would carry crude oil from the North Dakota oilfields to an oil tank farm in Illinois, where it would then be transported to Nederland, Texas. A newly completed pipeline connects Nederland to Lake Charles, Louisiana.


The Bayou Bridge Pipeline would carry 480,000 barrels of oil per day a final 162 miles across the state to refineries and ports, through eight watersheds and long stretches of fragile wetlands.

CREDIT: Philips 66 investor presentation, September 2015
CREDIT: Philips 66 investor presentation, September 2015

Climate change activists, indigenous residents, crawfishermen, rice farmers, health care professionals, conservationists, and Louisianans who live along the proposed route all showed up to protest the pipeline’s construction. The hearing lasted five and a half hours, as speaker after speaker weighed in on how the pipeline would affect them.

The pipeline’s route will be less than a mile and a half from Rachel Roche’s farm, which has been in her family for three generations.

CREDIT: Aviva Shen
CREDIT: Aviva Shen

“This new pipeline adds an additional threat to my rice and crawfish crops because it threatens a major source for irrigation. It threatens the drinking water for my family, my neighbors and my livestock,” Roche testified.


Energy Transfer representatives depicted the pipeline as a boon for Louisiana’s economy, estimating that the company would pay $17.6 million in sales tax, $1.8 million in property taxes, and inject $30 million into the local economy during the construction.

Ultimately, however, they estimate the pipeline will create just twelve permanent jobs.

The company’s presentation emphasized the economic impacts, but it was vaguer about the environmental costs. Opponents are pushing the Army Corps of Engineers to draft an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that will fully investigate both certain and possible effects on the environment.

Spoil banks and vanishing swamps

Much of the concern voiced at the hearing — including in song — focused on how the pipeline would impact the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest river swamp in the U.S. According to the permit application, the pipeline would result in the permanent loss of 77 acres of wetlands and temporarily affect 171 acres of wetlands in the Atchafalaya watershed.

The Atchafalaya Basin is a tourism destination, provides natural drainage for flood control, and supports much of the state’s crawfishing industry. It is already suffering from swamp degradation and pollution buildup from dozens of other oil and gas pipelines, many of which are abandoned.

Energy Transfer Partners say they will minimize impact by following an already existing pipeline route. But that route is already causing immense damage to the basin, opponents pointed out.


Pipeline permits in the basin require companies to remove the dirt they dig out and replace it once the project is finished. But in practice, that simply hasn’t happened.

“There are hundreds of pipelines criss-crossing the Atchafalaya Basin that have been put in over the past six, seven decades and has crippled our ability to make a living as commercial crawfishermen in the Atchafalaya basin,” testified Jody Meche, a commercial crawfisherman from Henderson, Louisiana.

Companies have left behind huge “spoil banks” that dam up the water flow and upend the fragile ecosystem of the deep swamps. And the state’s Department of Water Quality (DEQ) has done little to force companies to clean up their mess.

“They don’t enforce the regulations, they don’t fine people. They let them pollute and they give them the permits to do so,” Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said at the rally before the hearing.

A history of spills

The Bayou Bridge builders argue pipelines are the safest way to transport crude oil that would otherwise use less efficient trains or trucks to get to refineries. Former Democratic senator-turned-energy lobbyist Mary Landrieu was among the proponents of this argument at Thursday’s hearing.

“I would be testifying for this pipeline [even] if I did not work for them,” she said, amid boos and jeers from the audience.

But past pipelines have proven to be less airtight than the industry claims.

A new report by the Bucket Brigade found that there were 144 pipeline accidents in 2016. Many of these accidents were caused by corrosion or ruptures in the pipe, prompting the advocacy group to conclude the existing pipelines are in “deplorable condition.”

The Bucket Brigade’s analysis worked with very limited information due to lack of strong reporting standards or enforcement. A third of the reported accidents had unknown causes, but there’s little evidence that any followup or fixes took place. Many reports also lacked clear information on exactly how much oil or gas was spilled.

An industry economist dismissed the findings as “greatly exaggerated” reports of minor spills at Thursday’s hearing. Bucket Brigade contends that the industry is underreporting the scope of many of these smaller spills. The report notes that the industry reported one spill in the Chandeleur Sound as 8.5 gallons. SkyTruth, a group that studies satellite imagery of oil sheens after accidents, estimated it was at least 116 gallons. Oceanographers using SkyTruth’s analytical methods have found that oil spills are, on average, 13 times larger than the volume reported to the government.

Pipelines may become even more vulnerable, as more frequent storms and floods plague southern Louisiana. Older pipeline infrastructure has been compromised as the marshes lose ground. More than 600 Louisiana pipelines risk exposure over the next 25 years, according to a Louisiana State University study.

A national movement

Since Standing Rock protesters successfully halted construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline, efforts to stop more pipeline construction have ramped up across the country. Proposed oil infrastructure on the East Coast and in the Pacific Northwest are attracting more scrutiny in the wake of the Dakota protests. Activists in Texas have been arrested for blocking pipeline construction through Big Bend and the Rio Grande.

Many of the Louisianans who attended the hearing had recently returned from the Standing Rock camp in North Dakota. Others expressed solidarity with the thousands of Florida water protectors expected to gather this weekend to oppose the Sabal Trail Pipeline.

Lifelong Iberia Parish resident Andrea Kilchrist, 71, described the violence she had witnessed at Standing Rock: peaceful protesters battered with sonic grenades, tear gas, mace, and cannons. “If you think this company is not going to do the same thing here — it’s going to do the same thing here,” she warned the room.

“I hate pain. I’m afraid of pain and broken bones,” she continued, her voice shaking. “But on that first day, if y’all give that permit, I will be sitting in front of a bulldozer.”

Aviva Shen, a former ThinkProgress editor, is now a freelance writer in New Orleans focused on criminal justice.