Jody Meche, whose family has fished the Atchafalaya Basin for three generations, has no philosophical objection to fossils fuels, no desire to see the oil and gas industry come to a halt.
But when a roomful of environmentalists spoke out at a public hearing last month to protest the proposed Bayou Bridge pipeline, Meche was right there with them, demanding in his thick Cajun accent that any new pipelines not foul the swamp as so many others have done in the past.
The pipeline would run 163 miles across south Louisiana, from Lake Charles through the Atchafalaya Basin to St. James Parish, bridging a gap between oil refineries in Louisiana and a major oil and gas hub in Texas.
Many of the objections raised by environmental groups have focused on possible oil leaks and the need for the state to begin transitioning from oil to renewable energy, but Meche and others like him who make their living pulling crawfish from the Basin have different concerns.
A crowd of more than 400 — thick with environmentalists, crawfishermen and oil-and-gas worke…
Crawfishermen for years have complained about pipeline spoil banks: dirt piled up alongside the pipeline route when the trench was dug to lay the pipe.
The spoil banks serve as mileslong levees stretching across the swamp, blocking the natural flow of water and leaving parts of Basin stagnant and inhospitable to crawfish and other aquatic life.
"The effect of the pipelines on the Basin has been disastrous," said Dean Wilson, director of the conservation group Atchafalaya Basinkeeper.
Environmental groups in Louisiana are gearing up to fight a proposed 162-mile oil pipeline t…
Meche, Wilson and others — mainly through the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Assocation-West — have waged a yearslong battle to force oil and gas pipeline companies to level or break up spoil banks along existing pipelines, with little success.
"There was no reason for them to have destroyed the Basin the way they did," said Meche, who also serves as a councilman for Henderson, a town on the western edge of the Basin. "They made plenty of money to do that right."
Energy Transfer Partners, one of the main companies behind the new pipeline project, has pledged to leave behind no spoil banks or open canals, which also can disrupt the swamp by rerouting water to where it normally would not go.
Joey Mahmoud, a vice president with Energy Transfer, said in an interview with The Advocate last month that the company will bury the pipeline beneath the swamp floor and restore the surface to how it was before construction. Indeed, federal law now requires that procedure in most cases.
"Even if I didn't want to do it, I would have to do it anyway," Mahmoud said. "You have to restore your contours and elevations. It's not an option. Plus, it's the right thing to do."
St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier, who, with other local leaders, met with pipeline company officials earlier this year, said the company seems to have good intentions.
"I've been in office for a dozen years, and this is the first time a pipeline company comes down and sits with us before the pipeline is built," he said.
But Cormier also said he is taking a trust-but-verify approach.
"We are not against oil and gas companies," Cormier said. "We just want to make sure it's done right. ... I want to know exactly what they are going to put in the ground."
HENDERSON — Officials in Henderson are showing some support, with reservations, for the cont…
As for addressing past pipeline problems, it's a complicated issue.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulates pipelines in the Basin, but most of the existing pipelines don't fall within the Corps' regulatory oversight because they were built before the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, said Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett.
Boyett said the Corps investigates reports of improper spoil banks along pipelines that fall under the agency's authority and takes action if necessary, though he added that it is challenging for the regulatory staff to stay on top of violations considering the volume of work handled by the New Orleans office, which oversees the Basin.
"From the enforcement standpoint, there is definitely a lack of manpower from the Corps' perspective," Cormier said.
There has been no large-scale project in the Basin to address the effects of older pipelines, but the state Department of Natural Resources has overseen restoration projects that included cutting gaps in spoil banks to improve water flow, and more are in the works, said department spokesman Patrick Courreges.
"In general, it's a recognized problem," he said.
Energy Transfer Partners has agreed to consider mitigation work in the Basin to help improve water flow, but Mahmoud said the company cannot alter spoil banks along another company's pipeline.
"We can't go onto somebody's pipeline and move dirt. That is somebody else's asset. They own the right-of-way," Mahmoud said.
But he said the company will work with crawfishermen, local officials and conservation groups to identify projects that could help restore the natural flow of the swamp in other ways.
"We have committed to do that. We just don't have a project nailed down yet," Mahmoud said.
Meche said he is wary.
"That's just talk. They are going to tell you everything they are going tell you to get you to go along and let them do what they want to do," he said.
No decision has been made for the permits required for the Bayou Bridge pipeline.
The Corps and the state Department of Environmental Quality held a hearing on the project last month.
The state Department of Natural Resources has a public hearing on the project set for Wednesday in Napoleonville.