A state judge is weighing arguments about whether to overturn a necessary permit for Bayou Bridge, the proposed crude oil pipeline that would connect Lake Charles to St. James Parish. 

Environmental groups and St. James residents have appealed to the 23rd Judicial District Court to pull the coastal use permit for the 162-mile pipeline granted by the Department of Natural Resources and send it back for more study and consideration. Other agencies, including the parish government, state Department of Environmental Quality and the Army Corps of Engineers have also given the pipeline their blessing. The natural resources agency — which has jurisdiction over a small part of Bayou Bridge in the coastal zone around St. James —issued their approval months ago, and their decision was the first to be appealed.

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This week, pipeline opponents represented by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic squared off with lawyers from the state and the pipeline company. Opponents told Judge Alvin Turner, Jr. that the Department of Natural Resources betrayed the public with an overly lax review that did not consider alternative routes.

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The state and company responded with disbelief. Pipelines are safer than transporting oil by truck and train, and Bayou Bridge underwent arduous vetting, said assistant attorney general Harry Vorhoff and pipeline attorney Jimmy Percy.

As Vorhoff discussed why it's desirable to bundle oil and gas pipelines, the judge broke in.

Turner didn't disagree, but remarked that the state's argument didn't sound great. It may be advantageous to build pipelines and storage facilities in concentrated areas so there aren't pipes and tanks strewn across Louisiana, but that's of little consolation to the people who live nearby and are subjected to higher emissions. History has also shown that when companies and regulators decide where to place the infrastructure, it disproportionately winds up in the backyards of African-American communities, he observed.

"The question is, 'When does it stop?'" Turner said.

But he also emphasized that he doesn't put decades of industrial development at the feet of Bayou Bridge, nor does he necessarily think it's his place to try to unilaterally reverse the trend.

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The Department of Natural Resources behaved "arbitrarily and capriciously" when they granted a permit without considering the cost to the community or investigate what would happen to the residents in the St. James community in the event of an explosion or spill, said Tulane student attorney Ryan Sundstrom.

"There is no plan in place that addresses oil spills. ... This jeopardizes public safety," added student attorney Talia Nimmer.

That's a specious argument, Percy said. The state's approval is contingent on getting a federally-enforced spill-response plan approved before operations can begin, he said. Bayou Bridge has already given a several-page overview to the state, Vorhoff remarked.

"This has been scrubbed in great detail," Percy said.

The Tulane lawyers also contended that the state didn't require Bayou Bridge to consider alternative routes.

Turner, the judge, asked Tulane attorney Elizabeth Calderón what she would have them do. It's not the public's job to come up with those contingencies, but the state should have demanded the company consider options outside of St. James, taking into account the costs to the people who live there, she said. 

Vorhoff pushed back. Two-thirds of Bayou Bridge will be located along existing pipeline corridors because it's easier to add onto infrastructure that's already in place rather than building anew, like enlarging a landfill instead of building a new one, he said. 

The remaining third of the pipeline will be on land leased by owners in mostly agricultural areas, he said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.