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A flag marks one of the boundaries of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline project near Bayou Sorrel, La., on April 27, 2018.

After spending $750 million to construct an oil pipeline that’s scheduled to open at the end of the month, the builders must spend another $450 to settle claims it didn’t properly seize a swath of undeveloped land in St. Martin Parish.

In a ruling released Thursday, state judge Keith Comeaux said those building the Bayou Bridge Pipeline had a right to seize the land under eminent domain, but he refused to forgive their trespassing against three property owners. He ordered the pipeline’s owners to pay them $150 each.

The landowners’ attorneys said they will appeal the ruling. The pipeline's major shareholder was elated. 

“We are pleased with the ruling from Judge Comeaux and look forward to bringing the pipeline into service before the end of the year. Currently, construction is nearing completion along the full route,” wrote Alexis Daniel, spokeswoman for Energy Transfer Partners, the majority shareholder in Bayou Bridge.

“We are committed to following all the appropriate laws and regulations that govern our business. We are committed to being a good neighbor and a valued member of the communities through which we pass for decades to come,” she wrote in an email to The Advocate.

Bayou Bridge is a 162-mile pipeline that would carry crude oil from Lake Charles to a St. James terminal. It traverses an undeveloped 38-acre tract with somewhere between 400 and 700 heirs, including the three who accused pipeline construction crews of trespassing and who fought the expropriation.

Environmental groups have made multiple attempts to stymie construction through regulators and through the courts, and several lawsuits are still active. 

In a three-day trial last week, Bayou Bridge's lawyers pointed out that the state allows common carriers of petroleum products to expropriate private land if it is in the public's best interest. The company argued that bolstering Louisiana's energy sector is for the common good, while conservationists fought back, saying the cost to the environment is too high.

At the center of the debate was a philosophical question: Does the potential damage of chopping down trees, trenching the wetlands and exposing bayous to possible oil leaks outweigh the benefit of strengthening Louisiana's petrochemical economy?

“The Court should not supplant the well-thought and well-researched opinions of the various agencies that permitted this project,” Comeaux wrote in his judgment. “Therefore, the Court finds that the proper permitting has been done, and that the public purpose and necessity has been proven by Bayou Bridge Pipeline, LLC.”

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The decision incensed the landowners’ legal team.

“This case was always about holding a billion-dollar corporation legally accountable for its violations of the Louisiana and U.S. Constitutions and the damage it is doing to the Atchafalaya Basin. They made a calculated business decision that it was cheaper to violate the law than to follow it. While the court did find the company trespassed on our clients’ land, the damages award validates their business decision,” attorney Pam Spees wrote in a statement.

Each landowner was entitled to $75 each for their share of the land in question — the maximum amount the pipeline offered. Bayou Bridge argued in court that because the property has so many legal claimants, the trio involved in the suit would only net $1.11 combined if the land was put up for sale, and Comeaux wrote that $75 each was a generous offer.

The judge also ordered the pipeline builders to pay each landowner an additional $75 for trespassing.

“It is clear under Louisiana law that (the property owners’) consents were required to the granting of right of way to Bayou Bridge or expropriation judgments obtained as to their interests prior to the construction of the pipeline on this property. The facts show this was not done,” the decision states.

Comeaux pointed out that the landowners had very little contact with the property; Bayou Bridge’s lawyers emphasized that the three did not maintain it or pay property taxes on it, and none had visited the site until the day before the trial began.

In court, conservationist attorneys tried to emphasize the ecological value of wetlands, including the property in question. Landowner Peter Aaslestad contends that the property’s worth goes beyond its being a commodity.

“The value of the land goes far beyond what you could get if you ground it up for mulch. The court missed the very real value of the property as it is and the protection it provides to the public good,” he wrote in a statement.

“Their experts only spoke about their private gain, but the basin as a whole plays a larger and much more important role for the people and the state of Louisiana. I’m glad the judge ruled in our favor on the trespass, but we are not done fighting.”

Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66 are building the pipeline, the final link between the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Louisiana's refineries and shipping terminals. Construction of Energy Transfer Partners' Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota prompted violent protests there in 2016 and 2017.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.