The builders of the Bayou Bridge pipeline and the environmentalists trying to stop them will have to wait a few more days for a court decision on whether the project can continue moving forward.
After a day and a half of testimony and arguments, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick told the two sides she needs more time to weigh their points. Expect a ruling next week, she told them.
Opponents of the pipeline argued Friday that federal regulators didn't perform their due diligence when they decided to allow the project. They failed to require pipeline builders to take meaningful steps to offset the environmental impact of building the pipeline and did not thoroughly weigh the potential destruction of a spill, especially in the Atchafalaya Basin.
Lawyers for the pipeline companies and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the conservation groups misrepresented the pipeline review, which they said looked exhaustively at potential spills and considered the best way to offset negative impacts on the Atchafalaya Basin. Work that compensates for construction that affects sensitive wetlands is also known as wetlands mitigation.
They also asked the judge to consider the costs to both the company and workers building the pipeline should construction be halted.
Earthjustice brought the federal suit on behalf of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sierra Club. They allege the Corps acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" when it issued a necessary permit for Bayou Bridge.
The under-construction pipeline will transfer crude oil between Lake Charles and St. James parish. The environmentalists have asked Dick to stop construction on at least the 25 miles of the pipeline that run through the Atchafalaya Basin while they debate whether the Corps' permit should be revoked and reconsidered. The pipeline operators and pipe manufacturers have also signed on the case to argue that the project be allowed to move forward.
While the Corps of Engineers required the oil and gas companies plant trees to mitigate the damage to wetlands, those trees will be planted 55 miles to the north and are not the same types that will be sacrificed to make way for Bayou Bridge, Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman said. No one has explained why this hazard mitigation strategy is best. In fact it is an indefensible position, he continued.
The mitigation land in question is located on what at one time were cotton fields and that is now a mitigation bank. Mitigation banks are areas set aside for restoration where developers can buy credits to fund reforestation.
Bayou Bridge will pay approximately $21 million into the bank, attorneys said. The banks follow certain procedures so everyone knows how much environmental value a given investment will return when a company buys credits. That makes them a perfectly appropriate mitigation strategy, explained attorney Heather Gangee of the Department of Justice, which is representing the Corps.
Some crawfishermen and environmentalists have wanted Bayou Bridge to mitigate its work by removing spoil banks left by other pipeline companies, various attorneys said.
Spoil banks are created when dirt piles up after a trench is dug to sink a pipeline. They can block the natural flow of water in the Atchafalaya Basin, harming water quality and contributing to unwanted sedimentation. However, review of the project determined that investing in the mitigation bank was a better strategy, DOJ and pipeline lawyers argued.
The existence of spoil banks ran like an undercurrent through the entire proceeding. Bayou Bridge's permit requires the builders clear all spoil banks left over after construction. Pipeline opponents argued that if the Corps can't be trusted to regulate oil and gas companies already, the public has no assurance they will fulfill their obligations in the future.
A federal judge has kept a fight alive as environmental groups seek to shut down construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline.
Gangee said that assessment is patently false, adding that it is unfair to hold a new project hostage for the perceived flaws with another company's infrastructure.
Dick, the federal judge hearing the suit, said she needed a few more days to review the arguments but that she hopes to proffer a decision next week.
Her ruling will determine whether construction is temporarily halted in the Atchafalaya Basin. During the work stoppage, the two sides would argue whether the Corps permit should be vacated altogether.