By Meghan Holmes
On August 1, representatives from Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) met with community members and environmental advocates in St. James Parish for a Bayou Bridge Pipeline project information session. The pipeline would begin in Lake Charles and extend eastward through the Atchafalaya Basin to the Mississippi River’s west bank in St. James parish, serving as the terminus for the Dakota Access pipeline, which ETP also owns.
Residents voiced concerns of further environmental damage in an area with several extant plants and pipelines, as well as a reputation for poor air quality. They also fear the consequences of an accident. Company representatives did not speak, but passed out literature explaining their position: the pipeline will bring money and job to Louisiana.
“They (ETP) aren’t here to take questions. We have flyers that will answer your questions, and, if you have others, there is a 1-800 number you can call,” said Blaise Gravois, parish director of operations, who called the meeting to order. Some people in the auditorium appeared confused. “Why are we here, then? Where is this pipeline going to go?,” asked the Reverend Lionel Nelson, a St. James resident.
“There’s a map on the brochure,” said Gravois. “It should answer all your questions.”
“What about a safe evacuation route?,” asked Nelson. “I have nothing against pipelines or progress but this should’ve been addressed before anyone got a permit. We have a plant being built right now, what will happen when there is an accident or fire? Elderly and sick people live around here. I can crawl a little bit, but I’m old; I can’t run. We need to know if we are getting a route, and once it’s in place we need a plan.”
Councilman Clyde Cooper, who asked the St. James Parish council to organize the information session, responded: “All these are good, fair, honest and important questions. We are working with the governor, and things are moving in that direction. He has appointed someone to meet with a parish representative and work on a route.”
Evacuation routes have been a contentious issue in west St. James for some time. There is one road that runs in and out of the Burton Lane neighborhood, and if an accident blocked that thoroughfare, residents would have no way out. Elderly community members have watched the neighborhood transform from pastoral to industrial, and some can’t help but see parallels between the plantations that once lined the Mississippi’s banks and continued exploitation of slave’s descendants still living in the area.
“Why does it always have to be us?,” said Pastor Harry Joseph of St. James’ Mount Triumph Baptist Church. “The air in this place is so bad they’ve named it cancer alley. Enough is enough.”
Joseph has organized residents through a group called HELP (Humanitarian Enterprise of Loving People), whose members oppose the Bayou Bridge pipeline and unchecked industrial development in St. James. HELP holds monthly meetings on the pipeline at Mt. Triumph church and brought a petition to the city council with 400 signatures to create an evacuation route out of the 5th ward to Highway 3127.
“Isn’t it funny how quickly they can build a plant but how long it takes to get an escape route?,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “This isn’t right. I think these officials (from ETP) need to stand up and answer some questions.”
“They aren’t here to answer questions. That isn’t what this meeting is for,” said Gravois. “The meeting was set last Thursday (August 3), so we put this together at the last minute.”
“This is a distraction,” Rolfes said, to murmurs of agreement from community members surrounding her. Pastor Joseph took the mic being passed to each speaker and addressed the representatives from the parish government and ETP.
“Nothing happens overnight, and I feel in my heart that someone in St. James has known about this project for a long time. At the meeting in Napoleonville, the pipeline people left and wouldn’t answer questions. They don’t want to hear what people are saying: that this community has been thrown under the bus too many times. We opposed the last plant and it still came. We keep seeing people on the east bank (where St. James’ parish seat is located in Convent) making decisions about what happens on the west. It’s time for us to educate ourselves, and fight for ourselves.”
Joseph spoke of St. James’ poor air quality, and residents who can’t breathe properly because of consistent air emissions of pollutants. “We are burying so many people dying of cancer in this district. People are suffering. You need to stop looking at the money going through the pipeline and look at the people living around the pipeline. Your pipeline is not the best thing, because you can’t guarantee it. Look at the oil spills we have already had, and they said the same thing y’all are saying now.”
Several environmental leaders present at actions against the Dakota Access Pipeline also attended the meeting, and spoke forcefully against Energy Transfer Partners.
“This pipeline is located in the brownest, poorest part of Louisiana, like it always is, and it’s going to make people in Texas rich while it goes through 600 acres of wetlands,” said Cherri Foytlin, director of Bold Louisiana and a resident of Rayne. “Who knows how many crawfishermen will lose their livelihoods. The Dakota pipeline has already had three spills, and that’s the company saying they’re going to protect you. They went over the bones of my ancestors the day a judge told them not to. They attacked us with spray guns and rubber bullets.”
“I met with people in Tickfaw who said they hadn’t seen that since the civil rights movement,” added Anne White Hat, a member of the Sicangu Lakota who traveled from South Dakota to protest the pipeline. “What Cherri is talking about really happened… to me and my family.”
White Hat, Foytlin, and others have built a floating protest camp to organize opposition around the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in the Atchafalaya basin. The camp’s location is undisclosed, as its organizers hope to avoid some of the issues that arose from unvetted crowds at Standing Rock. Another effort to derail the pipeline’s construction comes in the form of a lawsuit the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic filed on behalf of Pastor Joseph and the Mount Triumph Church, Eve Butler (director of the nonprofit HELP), the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, Gulf Restoration Network, and BOLD Louisiana.
The suit alleges that ETP did not look for alternate pipeline routes, did not consider area residents’ exit strategy and isn’t following Department of Natural Resources regulations. It also faults CPRA for not considering potential impacts on the state’s coastal master plan. The Sierra Club and LEAN also filed petitions with the EPA on behalf of area residents, claiming that the pipeline disproportionately impacts people of color. Advocates worry that given the policies of the Trump administration, a favorable verdict in an environmental racism petition is unlikely.
The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources has granted a permit for the Bayou Bridge pipeline. ETP awaits approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and LDEQ before construction can begin. Pipeline opponents hope the governor will halt construction entirely, or at the minimum require a full environmental impact statement. Governor Edwards has previously expressed support for the pipeline.
“We should have the right to say no,” said Pastor Joseph. “St. James it’s time to fight. That’s what we have to do if we love our community and we love our school. We have to stand up for what’s right, because there ain’t no more good boys on the street.”