Photo: Getty

On Thursday, several environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers over permits issued for a 163-mile long crude oil pipeline set to cut through southern Louisiana.

The groups, including the Sierra Club and the Gulf Restoration Network, are worried the pipeline could damage important habitat in the state’s Atchafalaya Basin, home to some pretty spectacular birds like the American kestrel and the long-beaked glossy ibis.

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American kestrel. Photo: Jerry McFarland / Flickr

“The Atchafalaya Basin is the most important habitat for migratory birds in the entire northern hemisphere,” Dean Wilson, executive director of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, one of the plaintiffs, told Earther. “Birds that come from the tropics come through Louisiana and migrate across the Gulf to Louisiana. The impacts as we destroy the Atchafalaya Basin, the impacts to the birds is huge.”

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court, alleges that the Corps violated the Clean Water Act, the Rivers and Harbors Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act when it issued two major permits for the Bayou Bridge Pipeline (BPP) because the Army failed to require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). While the federal agency did conduct an Environmental Assessment for the project, an EIS would have included much more detail on any potential environmental damage. It also likely would have taken a few years.

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Plus, the construction of this pipeline—not to mention any future leaks or spills—would disturb the basin’s wetlands. The Corps recognized this, though stating any impacts would be temporary, writing in its permit issuance:

The 162.5-mile pipeline will temporarily impact 455 acres of jurisdictional wetlands and include conversion of 142 acres of forested wetlands to permanent pipeline right-of-way, requiring the purchase of 708 acres of mitigation from Corps-approved wetland mitigation banks located within the watershed of impacts. The combination of avoidance, minimization and mitigation will result in zero net loss of jurisdictional wetlands.

This pipeline has quickly become contentious for people in Louisiana. Developed in large part by the same company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline—Energy Transfer Partners—BBP would bring that same Bakken Formation oil from North Dakota into a terminal in St. James Parish.

When contacted about the lawsuit, Energy Transfer Partners Public Relations Specialist Alexis Daniel told Earther in an email that the “project has been in development since 2015 and has been carefully vetted by all applicable regulatory agencies and local governments along its route.”

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“Bayou Bridge will provide a connection between key Louisiana refining operations with new, sustainable and diverse sources of American energy production,” he said.

Glossy ibis. Photo: AJ Schroetlin / Flickr

While these groups are focused on the Atchafalaya swamplands—where most of the state’s crawfish are caught—others are worried about the right to clean drinking water, land, and, ultimately, freedom. Cherri Foytlin is an indigenous woman of Diné and Cherokee heritage who helped launch a resistance camp against BPP over the summer: L’eau Est La Vie Camp (translating to “water is life” in the indigenous-colonial Houma French language).

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About 25 people spend time at the camp, and they’re gearing up. They’re not involved in this lawsuit, but the camp has found a permanent 11-acre home. Camp members are ready to put their bodies on the line as soon as construction begins.

“We’re not terrorists,” Foytlin told Earther. “We’re not crazies, and we’re definitely from this land and water and are willing to do what we have to do to protect what we love—nonviolently of course.”

Together, all these groups have built a coalition against this pipeline. They argue that pipelines spill—and they do. The Dakota Access Pipeline has seen at least five spills since going into operation six months ago, according to The Intercept. No wildlife or water have been impacted so far, but opponents have reason to worry. For them, it’s just a matter of time.

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Photo: EARTHWORKS / Flickr

Now, with this latest lawsuit, groups hope the courts will give them the opportunity to make a case. As seen in a similar lawsuit against the Dakota Access, these cases can go on for months and months. The pipeline’s construction can move more quickly—and once a pipeline is completed, the legal battle can feel futile.

“We’re going to do everything we can do to get the merits and heart of the case to the judge before the company is able to come in and construct in the basin,” said Misha Mitchell, a staff attorney for Atchafalaya Basinkeeper
.

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The pipeline needs just two more green lights, a permit from the Atchafalaya Levee District and approval from the Coastal Protection Restoration Authority. With these other permits out of the way, the project’s almost certainly got those in the bag.

The clock is ticking.