ST. MARTINVILLE — A testy trial over the Bayou Bridge pipeline began Tuesday with an assertion that the plaintiff's share of the land at the center of the dispute is worth only $1.11.
The 162-mile Bayou Bridge will carry crude oil between Lake Charles and St. James, but to do so, it is designed to go through a contentious plot of property. The undeveloped Buffalo Cove swampland has been subdivided and passed down so many times it now has perhaps 700 heirs, attorneys have said. Most, but not all, appear to have agreed to let the company have its right-of-way.
However, Theda Larson-Wright and siblings Peter and Katherine Aaslestad don’t want the pipeline and told the company if they want it, they’d have to seize it under eminent domain. Under Louisiana law, utility providers have the authority to legally expropriate property if they can prove it is for the public benefit. Industrialists and environmentalists sparred over the pipeline's merits and will continue to do so Wednesday in state district court in St. Martin Parish.
On Tuesday, Bayou Bridge lawyers tried to show Judge Keith Comeaux that the plaintiffs are just three voices among hundreds. The company hired expert witness David Dominy to formally appraise the land. After a lengthy explanation, he revealed that while the 38-acre property is worth $871 an acre, Larson-Wright only owns 0.00994 percent, and the Aaslestads combine for 0.0003125 percent, meaning if the whole property were to sell at its appraised value, their share wouldn’t even buy a soda at a vending machine.
Plaintiff attorney Pam Spees fired back.
Do appraisals consider the possibility of a future oil leak, she asked. They do not, Dominy said. Do they account for the value of trees in preventing flood control? Only for timber, Dominy replied.
The Louisiana Supreme Court has already set precedent that putting more oil into the state’s economy is to the public’s benefit.
“What will the public get out of it?” Comeaux asked.
If you need to seize land to run an electrical line, more houses can turn the lights on. Pipelines may be of use to taxing agencies, but what’s the benefit to the public at large, the judge asked.
More pipelines keep Louisiana relevant in the wider energy economy, and that’s a benefit to the public, Bayou Bridge attorney Michael Donald responded.
In fact, much of Donald's time was spent questioning economics professor David Dismukes, executive director of the LSU Center for Energy Studies. Dismukes said the company hired him to study the Bayou Bridge proposal to educate the public on the venture.
New pipelines give refineries more and diverse supply sources, Dismukes said. That can introduce more competition, grow the domestic economy, and pick up the slack if there’s a problem with another source of oil. It makes the country less reliant on foreign oil, which could even help in the event of an emergency like a hurricane, Dismukes said. The response turned the heads of a few on the environmental side.
On cross, Spees began what looked like a line of questions on the economic costs of coastal loss and other environmental problems, but Comeaux paused her. After a circular discussion, she dropped the matter.
She only had time Tuesday to call one witness, Scott Eustis, the community science director for the Gulf Restoration Network who has been monitoring pipeline progress that indicates Bayou Bridge began shredding trees and digging trenches before the expropriation suit began.
The proceedings will resume Wednesday morning. The first day began with vitriol. Both sides accused the others of being slow responding, especially a Black Friday filing made by the plaintiffs.
“I just don’t know why you waited until the eleventh hour,” Comeaux chastised.
The company’s lawyers, meanwhile, were “disappointing” in their disparaging personal attacks on the plaintiffs’ politics and motivations, Spees said.