A federal judge has kept a fight alive as environmental groups seek to shut down construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline.

Construction recently began on the pipeline and is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. The pipeline is designed to carry crude oil between Lake Charles and St. James Parish.

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Opponents are asking U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick to block construction while the court considers rescinding a necessary U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit.

Dick determined Thursday that allowing construction to continue would cause "irreparable harm" because construction crews would continue cutting down centuries-old cypress trees. She has yet to determine if the plaintiffs have a chance of winning the suit to pull the permit but indicated she would make a ruling Friday following more arguments.

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In court, environmentalists and a crawfisherman showed photos of trees reduced to mulch in the Atchafalaya Basin. Among the culled trees were old-growth bald cypresses.

Pipeline attorney William Scherman said Bayou Bridge is prepared to spend $20 million to perform offsetting environmental projects known as wetlands mitigation. However, Scott Eustis, community science director for the Gulf Restoration Network, testified the mitigation would take place 55 miles away. Clemson ecology professor William Conner said the project the Corps agreed to would replant bottomland hardwood forests, not swamps.

"It's two different kinds of forest performing two different kinds of function. … I don't think the mitigation will replace what is going to be cut, simple as that," Conner said on the stand.

Dick agreed, reasoning that if a driver crashes into a person and the victim loses an arm, the at-fault driver may pay restitution, but it doesn't cause the arm to grow back.

"Mitigation doesn't repair a harm," she said.

Should the suit continue, the judge determined, there would be reason to halt construction while the full matter is argued. Having cleared that hurdle, the plaintiffs, represented by attorneys from the nonprofit Earthjustice, will now have to demonstrate that the Corps was wrong to issue the permit.

The Corps is represented by U.S. Department of Justice attorneys, though they left most of the Thursday's arguments to Scherman, who is representing Energy Transfer Partners, the majority shareholder of Bayou Bridge, LLC, which intervened in the suit.

Scherman said pipeline opponents have been concerned with spoil banks, the piles of dirt that have historically been left over from burying pipelines that create dams that block the flow of water.

However, as a condition of the permit, Bayou Bridge must ensure that the land is returned to its pre-construction state, including the natural contours of the land. To side with the plaintiffs, the judge would "have to assume a regulatory failure" on the Corps' part, Sherman said.

Furthermore, while some, like crawfishermen, have called for Bayou Bridge to remove existing spoil banks on other companies' properties, the Corps reviewed the permit and, after consideration, decided that other wetlands mitigation was more appropriate, the attorney continued.

Dick will decide Friday whether the suit shall proceed and construction halted in the interim. The hearing will begin at 9 a.m. in the U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge. There is a separate but related suit pending in the 23rd district court in St. James challenging the Louisiana Department of Natural Resource's permit allowing construction of Bayou Bridge in the state's coastal zone. 

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Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.

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