As the flat-bottom fishing boat speeds through waterways deep inside Louisiana’s Atchafalaya basin, the largest river swamp in the US, the landscape suddenly shifts from high banks of sediment and oil pipeline markers on either side to an open grove of cypress trees towering above the water. Flocks of white ibis appear, seemingly out of nowhere, to nest and hunt amid the moss-dripped, century-old wetland forest.
This is what the entire basin is supposed to look like,” explained Jody Meche, president of a local crawfishermen alliance and a lifelong resident with a thick Cajun accent.
And it is in peril. Degraded by decades of oil and gas development and lax permit enforcement, the swamp has now emerged as a flashpoint for environmental activists seeking to stop construction of the tail end of the controversial Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), which was the subject of mass protests in 2016.
The 160-mile Bayou Bridge pipeline, as the section of DAPL is known, will cross Native American land and 700 bodies of water, terminating in St James, a tiny African American community in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley”, where some residents are already so hemmed in by industrial infrastructure that they lack an emergency evacuation route.
In a last-ditch effort, one group of activists is staging an unprecedented and divisive physical protest campaign. They have locked themselves to construction equipment, forced construction stoppages by kayaking up to worksites and dangling from trees on makeshift platforms to delay clearcutting.
The Bayou Bridge pipeline (BBP) provides the final link between fracked oil from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota and the refineries and export facilities of the Gulf coast.
It is the latest addition to 125,000 miles of pipeline that already snake through Louisiana. Environmental advocates contend the pipelines are fueling the state’s coastal land loss crisis by blocking the natural flow of sediment through waterways. This causes the delicate wetlands along the coast to wash away more quickly by rising sea levels and leaves coastal communities more vulnerable to hurricanes.
Many here allege that the problem is greatly exacerbated by weak regulation and enforcement. Pipeline developers, they say, have illegally left behind mounds of dredged sediment called spoil banks – a byproduct of the construction process – that act as artificial dams, creating stagnant pools where crawfish and other wildlife can barely survive. Natural bayous, once rich fishing grounds, have silted up.
“Thousands of acres are just lost,” said Meche, who is also a member of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, a local not-for-profit group founded by fishermen that is working to restore and protect the area from further destruction. “Big oil, they’ve gotten away with it.”
Dean Wilson, executive director of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, charges that oil and gas companies operate with impunity and face little pushback from a state that needs jobs.
For instance, of nearly 60,000 applications for a coastal use permit processed by the state since 1980 – most of which relate to oil and gas development – just 20 have been denied, according to officials. And Wilson says that over the years, he has filed thousands of permit violation reports alleging developers failed to return land to pre-construction conditions or remove spoil banks. Even then, Wilson said, the state often grants pipeline companies after-the-fact permits.
“The entire system is broken. It’s seriously like a third-world country,” Wilson said.
Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the majority owner of the Bayou Bridge pipeline and the company behind DAPL, has one of the worst pipeline safety records in the country. According to a 2018 Greenpeace report, pipelines owned by ETP, Sunoco (which merged with ETP in 2012) and their subsidiaries spilled over 500 times in the last decade. An analysis last year found ETP’s pipelines leaked more than twice as often as other companies.
Asked about its compliance record for pipelines in the Atchafalaya basin, a spokesperson for ETP said in an emailed statement that they “continue to safely operate today, meeting all the applicable rules and regulations under which they are permitted”.
Wilson’s organization and others have sued state and federal agencies to stop pipeline construction, but, despite some short-lived legal victories, the Louisiana department of natural resources has refused to enforce a judge’s order to review its approval of the BBP. The pipeline is expected to be completed soon.
“There is no way for us to stop the oil industry,” Wilson said. “The question is … what can I do that is feasible, to save the swamps? Either I do what I’m doing or do nothing. Or just go back to fishing and let them destroy everything.”
Meche puts it even more bluntly: “The people that were supposed to be looking out for me and my interests and my environment sold me out, no doubt.”
“They’re billin’ us for killin’ us.”
Cherri Foytlin, a member of the indigenous women’s advisory council of the L’Eau Est La Vie camp, was adamant that the fight against BBP had to be escalated outside the courtroom.
“Some people actually believe there is a way to win within these systems. I do not,” Foytlin said from the camp headquarters, a plot of land not far from Lafayette, bare except for a line of tents, a small warehouse and an above-ground swimming pool parked in the shade of a carport canopy.
“Is there a way to say ‘no’?” she wondered. “This is my question and I’m still waiting to be answered.”
Numbers here fluctuate between about a dozen to more than 50 people, and the camp has been calling for more volunteers on the frontlines. Activists say theirs is the first example of a direct action campaign for an environmental cause in the state. The group has managed to halt construction completely in some areas of the basin for over a month, though ETP maintains that the disruptions have not affected their schedule.
Since the start of the campaign, there have been more than 50 arrests, including 13 people now facing up to five years in prison under a harsh new anti-protest law that went into effect in August. Backed by ETP, Phillips 66 and other energy companies, the law declares pipelines “critical infrastructure” and threatens felony charges for anyone trespassing on a pipeline site.
“There’s been a lot of intimidation and physical stuff that happened on this campaign that hasn’t happened on any other campaign,” said Foytlin, who faces three felony charges under the bill.
The law is similar to other anti-protest legislation modeled on a policy supported by the rightwing American Legislative Exchange Council and passed in states with contentious pipeline projects, the Intercept has reported.
Tactics adopted by L’Eau Est La Vie also anger other pipeline opponents. Wilson and Meche of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper say they needlessly ratchet up tensions.
“When they finish the pipeline, [the protesters] go and move somewhere else,” said Wilson. “And we’re stuck with the mess, with whatever happens with the local sheriff departments, with the laws they passed. The next pipeline company that comes in is going to be even harder.”
Even as the environmentalist groups are left wondering how to move forward to save the basin, new proposals continue to roll into Louisiana. In August, Tallgrass Energy announced plans for a $2.5bn crude oil export terminal in Plaquemines Parish. The project also includes a 700-mile pipeline from Oklahoma to St James.
“Frustrations are high, tensions are high,” said Meche. “If these issues don’t get addressed, then I am fearful that the Cajun people that rely on the Atchafalaya basin for their way of life are going to resort to drastic measures.”