The company behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline has started building a pipeline through South Louisiana. Protesters are disrupting construction, and now a judge has ordered construction in the Atchafalaya Basin to stop while a lawsuit plays out in court.
On a Saturday in mid-February, about 40 protesters marched toward a Bayou Bridge Pipeline construction site near Belle Rose, Louisiana. They sat on top of machinery and held a prayer circle, disrupting construction for about an hour. Cherri Foytlin, one of the protest organizers, says the state has plenty of pipelines already.
“Why do we need this one?” she asks the group, rhetorically.
Like many at the Dakota Access pipeline protests last year, these protesters identify as “water protectors.” They’re worried that the pipeline could leak and threaten drinking water sources. They want a world without fossil fuels. So they're trying to stop construction — even if temporarily — which they’ve done twice so far.
On a shady slew in the Atchafalaya swamp, Jody Meche reaches for a crawfish trap over the side of his aluminum boat. It’s tied with string to a small tree, and marked with a blue ribbon so he knows it’s his. He pulls it out of the water and dumps three crawfish into the boat.
“When you got good water — good muddy water with a current — that's the best eating crawfish in the world," he says, proudly, "No doubt about it."
Meche has fished the basin for almost 30 years. He’s not protesting with the others, but he is against the pipeline. He says pipelines disrupt the water flow and create pockets of stagnant water, which is bad for crawfish — and his income.
"It's so frustrating," he says. "Every year it's harder and harder and harder."
Meche is President of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West — an advocacy group. The crawfish producers joined forces with several local and national environmental groups to sue the Army Corps of Engineers over the pipeline. They say the Corps didn’t consider the environmental impact thoroughly enough when they approved it.
Meche doesn’t fully identify with the protesters. He doesn’t consider himself an environmentalist and has even worked in the oil industry.
"I'm not opposed to the oil and gas industry," he says. "I know we need all of these [oil-based] products."
Ultimately, he just wants to see the Atchafalaya Basin’s health improve.
This isn’t the first pipeline in the Basin. Companies have been laying them for decades.
State officials acknowledge that pipelines have contributed to problems in the Basin. Last year, the legislature even asked the Department of Natural Resources to study the damage that’s already been done and to work on potential solutions.
Vicki Granado is a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, the company funding the pipeline's construction. She says Energy Transfer will make sure it won’t harm the environment.
"We need to have the infrastructure in place to safely and efficiently transport the crude oil where it needs to be," she says. And adds that pipelines are "by far the safest and most efficient way to do that."
Oil production in the United States is soaring, and Granado says the Bayou Bridge Pipeline will help meet the demand here and abroad.
Energy Transfer wants to bring crude oil from other parts of the country to St. James Parish — where there is a lot of refining capacity.
The first part of the Bayou Bridge pipeline has already been built. It currently ends in Lake Charles, where the oil is transferred to other places. The part being built now would bring the oil the rest of the way — through the Atchafalaya to St. James Parish.
But at the end of February, a judge ordered the company to stop construction while the lawsuit plays out in court.
Jody Meche was speechless when he heard the news.
"I was overwhelmed. I didn't expect that all," he said, choking up.
But while crawfishers like Meche might be relieved for now, other activists are gearing up to continue the fight. The pause on construction only applies to the 23-mile section that goes through the Atchafalaya. In the meantime, Energy Transfer will continue building the pipeline on either side, where the water protectors say they’ll be waiting.
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