Opposition to the Bayou Bridge Pipeline continued to smolder Thursday morning as a group of activists turned their sights again on Gov. John Bel Edwards.
During a press conference outside the Governor’s Mansion Thursday they painted officials in Edwards' administration as overly cozy and deferential to the oil and gas industry while surveilling dissidents and turning a deaf ear to their concerns.
"(Edwards) is not protecting us. ... Government is just about money, it's not about us. It's not about people's lives," said Pastor Harry Joseph of the Mount Triumph Baptist Church in St. James.
As a citizen from Amite, Edwards should have a care for the rural and small-town folks having another pipeline rammed through their communities, Louisiana Bucket Brigade founding director Anne Rolfes said.
In a one-sentence response, the governor’s office said it has complied with all the records requests that formed the basis of Thursday’s allegations directed at Edwards and his administration. However, several executive agencies defended their handling of the pipeline, saying they had dealt with it in a fair and practical manner.
Environmentalists lost another round in court Friday in their continuing fight to stop the Bayou Bridge pipeline project from going forward.
Bayou Bridge is a 163-mile pipeline intended to carry crude oil between Lake Charles and St. James. It began construction earlier this year, though a federal judge halted work in the Atchafalaya Basin last week until she can determine whether federal regulators required adequate compensation for damage to the wetlands.
But during Thursday’s event, all eyes were on the governor and his staff. Various environmental groups shared emails obtained through a public records request which point to what they characterized as improprieties.
For one, the company building Bayou Bridge wrote language that was later used in an official public notice issued by government agencies. Pipeline representatives also proposed responses to concerns aired in letters and at public meetings about Bayou Bridge, the environmentalists wrote in a hand-out.
Material written by the pipeline company and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality may look similar for several reasons, said press secretary Greg Langley. It’s possible that over time engineers develop boilerplate responses to common concerns.
The state also asks questions of permit-seekers throughout the process, so when the company gives an answer, the state relays that information. If a company says it’s going to address spoil banks or mitigation requirements or environmental monitoring in a certain way, then that goes into the record when it’s time to review whether the requirements of the permit have been fulfilled, Langley said.
But he categorically denied that Bayou Bridge is doing the agency’s job.
“They do not tell us what to say. They do not have that sort of relationship with LDEQ,” he said.
Environmentalists believe the issue speaks to a greater familiarity between the state and companies like Energy Transfer Partners, the majority shareholder in Bayou Bridge.
“State employees readily interact and quickly provide answers to queries from ETP representatives and employees, an ease of access that the Water Protectors do not have,” they wrote, citing a brisk exchange of emails between LDEQ and ETP staff.
Langley again disagreed.
“Everybody has the same access. …We may not give them the answer they want, but they will get an answer,” he said.
Emails between the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and other agencies also circulated a February 2017 photo of some prominent pipeline opponents, including Rolfes, at an anti-Bayou Bridge event outside the LDEQ’s offices, portraying it as a sign of heavy-handed surveillance. The photo was one that had been taken by an Advocate photographer and was published in the newspaper at the time.
The email containing the photo sent around to different agencies also identifies the L’Eau Est La Vie Camp, which has been organized to resist Bayou Bridge. However, it differs from the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, wrote Buren Moore, GOHSEP’s intelligence officer.
“Unlike the Standing Rock protest camp, L’Eau est la Vie is more formally organized,” he wrote.
Pam Spees, the Center for Constitutional Rights attorney who represented the environmentalists in an unsuccessful public records lawsuit against the governor’s office earlier this year, sent a statement that was read at Thursday’s event.
“The deck is stacked against the people of Louisiana,” and those efforts could be put to better use watchdogging the oil and gas companies, she wrote.
GOHSEP communications director Mike Steele said there’s nothing sinister about his agency’s role. The agency keeps an eye on issues that may at some point may draw big crowds requiring security, traffic control or crowd control. Homeland security may have an ominous connotation, he said, but they aren’t spies.
“It’s not surveillance. It’s letting these agencies know that these matters are ongoing,” Steele continued.
He said GOHSEP routinely prepare for large crowds, such as LSU football games, Mardi Gras parades and even a Duck Dynasty Christmas event in Monroe a few years ago.