Fighting the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana

by Anne White Hat

The Atchafalaya Basin in southern Louisiana is the largest river swamp in North America and one of the most productive wetlands in the world. Its 885,000 acres provide habitat for a vast array of wildlife, including half of the continent’s migratory waterfowl. 

Since time immemorial, people have centered their life-ways on the Basin: from the indigenous Houma and Atakapa-Ishak nations, to the Cajuns and crawfishermen who came later.  It is a special place where land becomes water, where life flourishes as it pours into the sea. But the Atchafalaya Basin is under attack. Corporations are ramping up the development of oil and gas infrastructure in its waterways. Large access canals and pipelines dredged through the swamp have fundamentally altered its geology, disrupting the north-south water flow and creating sedimentary build-up that fills natural bayous, preventing the Basin from serving its natural role as a floodplain. In addition to dams (constructed by the oil industry), some parts of the Basin have two kilometers of man-made canals for every one kilometer of natural bayou.

All of this meddling has impaired water quality, destroyed wildlife habitats, and wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of crawfishing communities. The last few years have seen serious floods hit communities throughout Louisiana, and the flooding will only get worse as the Atchafalaya Basin continues to wither. Our state is losing an acre of coastal wetlands every hour.

The last thing we need is another pipeline through the Basin. Yet that’s exactly what Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, is proposing.

They’re calling it the “Bayou Bridge Pipeline,” but we call it a threat to everything we hold scared — and it’s already under construction. Its proposed 162-mile length will cross an astounding 700 bodies of water, including Bayou LaFourche, a critical reservoir that supplies the United Houma Nation and 300,000 Louisiana residents with clean, safe drinking water. This not only violates the sovereignty of the Houma and other nations, but it also threatens sacred mounds and traditional “marker trees” (ancient Cypresses) along its path.

Furthermore, the pipeline would destroy our economy by adding to the already enormous problems that pipelines have created for the crawfishing industry, which supports thousands of good jobs. By ETP’s own admission, the Bayou Bridge Pipeline would create only 12 permanent jobs. It’s clear that this project only serves the needs of industry, at the cost of more of our precious wetlands, with unforeseeable impacts on flooding throughout the entire state of Louisiana. This pipeline is incompatible with humanity’s goal to limit emissions and stop climate change. It is incompatible with the belief in our hearts that water is sacred, and water is life.

To fight this pipeline, we have formed the L’eau Est La Vie Camp, a frontline resistance camp. L’eau Est La Vie means “water is life” in French, and the camp is backed by a coalition of indigenous nations, water protectors, local landowners, crawfishermen, faith-based congregations, and environmental groups. Holding space in the traditional territory of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation, which we have entered with their blessing, our camp serves as a home-base to monitor the proposed route, build relationships with nearby landowners, and reclaim land under the vision of a just transition and sustainable future.

We are targeting the Bayou Bridge Pipeline and the company behind it, ETP, with both legal interventions and strategic non-violent direct actions. With lessons learned from allied pipeline resistance efforts, we are appealing the permits awarded by the Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, alleging that these groups have failed to consider irreparable harms to both the Atchafalaya Basin and the coastal community around St. James Parish in southern Louisiana. We are also fighting in court to receive public records regarding communications between the companies behind this project and our local sheriffs, as well as with the governor of Louisiana.

Our coalition is working to develop and implement Louisiana Water Protector Training for every person that joins Camp, as well as folks in communities across southern Louisiana. Water protectors are trained to look for specific Energy Transfer Partners construction permit violations and report them to the appropriate agency. We also provide a comprehensive overview of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline and environmental history as well as laws regarding waterways. To date, nearly 100 water protectors have been trained and monitoring is being coordinated amongst our coalition via Signal app and Facebook reporting, with daily-on-the-ground updates provided by L’eau Est La Vie water protectors. This strategy builds internal power and also sends a strong message to ETP: Louisiana isn’t as friendly to oil and gas as they have been told.

In a recent exploratory excursion, we noted and took samples of Louisiana’s old-growth “legacy” Cypress trees in the Atchafalaya Basin. These trees are estimated to be more than 400 years old and are often referred to as the “Noah’s Arc” of the wetlands because they are home to wildlife during storms and high waters. While the number of these old growth trees that lie within the Bayou Bridge Pipeline’s route is unknown, its 75-foot wide right-of-way will permanently destroy at least 940 acres of these wetlands.

In addition, water protectors also discovered a work-site where construction crews had cut the fencing on the property easement and left it open. A horse was found entangled in the barbed-wire. They were able to free the mare, and our online petition garnered nearly 75,000 signatures in just 3 days calling for ETP to be charged with animal cruelty.

ETP is also the same company behind the notorious Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and also hired Tiger Swan, the private security firm that committed horrendous human rights abuses at Standing Rock. Tiger Swan applied for their license to operate in Louisiana but were denied due to our coalition organizing efforts. They have appealed. Meanwhile, the Louisiana’s Governor reportedly told the Baton Rouge Advocate that “another pipeline traversing the Atchafalaya Basin” wasn’t going to keep him up at night.

The collusion and apathy of our leaders is unacceptable. As we inch closer every day to a real climate catastrophe, it is up to water protectors and the people we stand with to shut down these projects by any and all non-violent means.

We are striving to create the systems of change necessary for a drastic shift towards clean energy, challenging systems of oppression within the Deep South at the heart of oil and gas country. By launching L’eau Est La Vie Camp as a home-base on the route of the proposed Bayou Bridge Pipeline, we have opened avenues of direct action, strategic organizing, and political resistance. We envision this land becoming a space devoted to multi-generational skill shares, radical art creation, activist retreat space, and everything else needed in a just transition toward a clean energy economy throughout the Gulf Coast region.

Oil and gas companies often build their infrastructure in Louisiana because they expect acquiescence from the people. Their industries have been long intertwined with our livelihoods; we have, sadly, come to see their infrastructure in our bayous and swamps as normal. But Louisiana is rising to challenge that situation. Folks are standing up to say “no more.” Inspired by the example of our relatives at Standing Rock, as well as those resisting Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain project in Canada, we are building community around defence of the sacred. We will not let them take our Basin and the life that flourishes there.

Anne White Hat

Anne White Hat

Anne White Hat is a member of the Aśke Gluwipi Tiośpaye of the Sicangu Lakota Nation from Rosebud, South Dakota. She is a mother and herbalist living in New Orleans, Louisiana and serves on the Advisory Council for L’eau Est La Vie Camp, a project of Louisiana Rise.