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Inside the Fight Over Pipelines in Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin

Anti-pipeline activists find themselves in league with the swamp's Cajun crawfishers as they work to thwart projects by the same company that built the Dakota Access Pipeline.
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Tank cars offloading crude oil in St. James, Louisiana.

Tank cars offloading crude oil in St. James, Louisiana.

Jody Meche began catching crawfish in the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana when he was 21. He's been at it now for 27 years. Like his father before him, he passes his days raising traps from the swamp, removing the bounty, and replenishing the bait. He does this for nine hours a day, over which time he runs 450 traps or more. Sometimes—not always—he takes a five-minute break for lunch.

Fellow humans are a rare sight on the basin, though Meche often encounters alligators, owls, otters, and minks. This haven of cypress trees and swamp iris is one of the first stops for songbirds leaving the Gulf of Mexico on their long northward migration. Meche loves this life of seclusion and tranquility. There is, however, one thing he has in common with the average New Yorker: a terrible daily commute.

He gets up at 3.30 a.m., ready to leave the house in an hour. After a 90-minute drive to Belle River, eating breakfast on the way (whatever he has time to pick up), he takes a 30-minute boat ride into the Atchafalaya Basin. He reaches his first trap by daybreak.

It wasn't always so bad. Meche lives a three-minute walk away from the basin levee. Technically, he could be at a trap in 15 minutes, but there would be no point: These days, the crawfish would be dead anyway.

Long piles of dirt, known as spoil banks, slash their way across the Atchafalaya Basin, the result of decades of digging trenches to lay oil and gas pipelines. These inhibit the natural flow of the water and reduce the oxygen content, suffocating the swamp's aquatic inhabitants. The area near Meche's house has been badly affected.

It's not only the basin that's been degraded, but also the Cajun tradition that depends upon it.

"We would always get together and have a cookout or a party, and have a good time cooking up some of the bounty that we caught in the Atchafalaya Basin," Meche recalls. "That get-together spirit is just not there anymore. You're frustrated a lot because you don't have as much success as you used to."

Companies lost the right to leave their spoil banks in the basin after the Clean Water Act was signed in 1972. But thanks to weak law enforcement, the effect has been to leave most companies in breach of their permits, rather than ridding the area of these damaging heaps.

As well as degrading water quality, these dams of dirt block sediment that should flow from the Mississippi River into the basin and toward the coast. This pattern exacerbates problems of coastal erosion and sea level rise, and diminishes the flood protection that the 880,000 acres of wetlands would naturally provide.

Meche, as head of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association–West, has spent 13 years suing the companies behind the oil and gas infrastructure crisscrossing the Basin, including Dow Chemical, Southern Natural Gas, and Florida Gas Transmission. It has been to no avail. The last defendant in the case recently settled, he says. The spoil banks remain.

And now a new pipeline is on the horizon. The Bayou Bridge Pipeline is a proposed 24-inch-wide, 162-mile-long pipeline that will carry up to 480,000 barrels of oil a day through the Atchafalaya Basin to the crude oil refineries and export terminals near St. James, also in Louisiana. It will ultimately connect to the Dakota Access Pipeline, with which it shares a parent company: Energy Transfer Partners.

This time, the crawfishers have help. They recently filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, bolstered by the involvement of non-governmental organizations with years of experience in taking on corporations, including Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, and the Gulf Restoration Network.

In their complaint, these groups accuse the Corps of neglecting its duty in failing to complete a full Environmental Impact Statement—a task the plaintiffs say was necessary, considering the irreparable harm that the pipeline would cause and the history of non-compliance in the basin. This lengthy and costly EIS process has previously been described by a judge as a "kiss of death" to many federal projects.

Their efforts are already paying off. The judge in the case recently issued a preliminary injunction against further construction in the Atchafalaya Basin until the case is resolved—an interruption that will cost the project almost a million dollars per day. A spokesperson for ETP stressed that "construction of this important infrastructure project continues in all other areas along the route." The company is appealing the injunction.

Meanwhile, protesters have set up camp, dubbed L'eau Est La Vie ("Water Is Life"), and bought land in the path of the pipeline. Trained "water protectors" are ready to fight for the basin, armed with skills such as identifying and documenting permit violations and performing baseline testing for soil and water.

This acceleration of the crawfishers' 13-year fight owes something to the violent clashes between police and protesters over Dakota Access at Standing Rock in 2016, as well as to the preceding fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. These high-profile battles have thrust pipeline construction into the spotlight. The fact that the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is essentially the tail end of the Dakota Access Pipeline has further helped inspire protesters.

"BBP resistance is a continuation of our fight in Standing Rock, and furthermore a continuation of the centuries-old fight to protect sacred stolen territory," L'eau Est La Vie says on its website. The group acknowledges that this camp must be smaller and more vetted than those at Standing Rock, largely because the ecosystem here is so fragile.

Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind both the Bayou Bridge and Dakota Access pipelines, has made itself into something of a bête noire for the environmental movement, and the involvement of ETP has helped spur protests. And while ETP has pledged to restore the Basin to its original state at the company's own expense, it's easy to see why the crawfishers have their doubts.

The lawsuit filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alleges that ETP is already out of compliance with its permit conditions on another pipeline that it partially owns and operates in the Atchafalaya Basin, the Florida Gas Pipeline. The dirt dug up in the construction of that pipeline "remains to this day, blocking bayous and countless waterways," the lawsuit says. ETP has recently faced backlash for spilling two million gallons of drilling fluid into the Tuscarawas wetlands of Ohio in April of 2017.

"More and more, wherever Energy Transfer Partners is seeking to build a pipeline, communities are taking notice and standing up to defend themselves," says David Turnbull, strategic communications director at Oil Change International. "That's what we're seeing with Bayou Bridge: For too long the efforts of local community members to push back were flying under the radar. Now, with the attention Energy Transfer Partners has brought itself, those local efforts are gaining the traction and support they've deserved all along."

With 13 years of fighting the fossil fuel industry behind him, Meche has more than played his part in this movement. Yet he only describes himself as "somewhat" of an environmentalist. There are things he thinks could be done to better protect the Earth, but he's not opposed to the oil and gas industry, and he says he won't be found camping out with a banner among "radicals." He is not one for shouting and screaming.

"I'm not fighting just to fight. My fight is real," he says. "It's like a war I'm fighting, and I'm fighting to protect my way of life and a part of my world. My Atchafalaya Basin."

New Landscapes is a regular series investigating how environmental policies are affecting communities across America.