Indigenous and environmental water protectors fight to block Louisiana pipeline

    At the L’Eau Est La Vie resistance camp in Louisiana, activists are monitoring and protesting construction of the tail end of the Dakota Access pipeline.
    Dressed as crawfish, water protectors from the L’eau est la Vie resistance camp shut down a construction site of the Bayou Bridge pipeline for several hours by preforming a humorous musical on April 9. (Facebook/L’eau est la Vie Camp)

    Half an hour outside of Lafayette, Louisiana — almost three hours west of New Orleans — the proposed route of the Bayou Bridge pipeline crosses the road. It’s a seemingly minor bend in the crooked path of a 162.5-mile pipeline that, if completed, would snake underground from Lake Charles near the Texas border to St. James in “Cancer Alley” the dense stretch of refineries and other petrochemical facilities lining the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

    But this bend matters to Cherri Foytlin, a Diné (Navajo) and Cherokee activist, journalist and mother, whose organization owns the small plot of land around which the pipeline’s route skirts. Here, a few small structures and a long line of tents make up the L’Eau Est La Vie (“Water Is Life”) resistance camp.

    “We bought the land in November of last year and have been occupying it since January of this year,” Foytlin said. “The very first thing that happened is they moved their pipeline to go around the property, because it was set to go through it.” It’s a physical trace of the opposition to the pipeline’s construction, which is scheduled for completion in October.

    The Bayou Bridge pipeline, or BBP, is one of a handful of pipelines currently under construction by Energy Transfer Partners, or ETP, a Dallas-based oil and gas company with tens of thousands of miles of lines already operational. Further upstream from the BBP, the ETP network includes its Dakota Access pipeline, which draws sweet crude from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and passes through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on its way to Patoka, Illinois. From there, another ETP line takes the oil south to Nederland, Texas, where the first phase of the Bayou Bridge to Lake Charles has already been completed.

    “This pipeline that’s going through our region here is the tail end of the Dakota Access pipeline,” Foytlin told a crowd of around 50 Louisianans gathered outside the capitol in Baton Rouge for a Moral Monday protest on June 4. “The exact same company that hit people with water hoses and freezing water, that sent dogs to bite people, those are the exact same people who are down here trying to push a pipeline through 700 bodies of our water.”

    The people and water along the line’s route are the key concern for pipeline opponents, who worry about ETP’s higher-than-average record of spills. A Greenpeace report published earlier this year found that, on average, ETP pipelines have leaked once every 11 days since 2002, releasing 3.6 million gallons of hazardous liquids, including 2.8 million gallons of crude oil. On 18 occasions, leaks contaminated groundwater.

    This track record worries even those whose primary fight is not against extraction, including Dean Wilson of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper an organization committed to protecting the swamps at the 20 mile-wide mouth of the Atchafalaya River. This has led them to form coalitions with groups including L’Eau Est La Vie whose analysis of the situation can be very different.

    “We are not fighting the oil industry,” Wilson said. “We won’t support them, but we won’t try to stop them if they follow certain conditions. The problem we have with these pipelines when they go through the Atchafalaya Basin is there’s no enforcement.”

    The river basin already straddles a key pipeline corridor, but the addition of the BBP here would mean widening this right-of-way. “The corridor is already out of compliance with the permits,” Wilson said, “and Energy Transfer Partners has been one of the worst in the basin. What we’re telling the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] is, before they keep granting permits, the Corps has the authority and the obligation to enforce those permits.”

    Basinkeeper is one of several groups, including the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association, that sued the Corps in January for inadequate environmental review during BBP permitting. Crawfishing, a major revenue source for the basin’s population, would be devastated by an oil spill. Crawfish and other wildlife are also threatened by the sediment dredged up during pipeline construction. While a federal judge granted an injunction against the BBP in February, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals quickly reversed that order and allowed construction to continue while it decided on a challenge brought by ETP’s Bayou Bridge subsidiary. On July 6, a divided panel of justices ruled in favor of the pipeline.

    Another Basinkeeper lawsuit filed along with local residents in the St. James Parish district court, Bold Louisiana (a group headed by Foytlin) and other organizations targets Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources, or DNR. In April, Judge Alvin Turner ruled against the ETP subsidiary, ordering them to develop environmental protection plans and emergency evacuation routes “prior to the continued issuance of said permit.” The ruling concerns only the final miles of pipeline that run through St. James Parish, where almost half of the population is black and nearly one in five residents live in poverty.

    The DNR has appealed Judge Turner’s decision. In the meantime BBP construction is ongoing. “We won the lawsuit,” Wilson said, “but they’re still building without a valid permit. DNR is doing nothing to stop it.”

    At L’Eau Est La Vie camp on a hot day in early June, a visiting lawyer led a legal workshop for a group of pipeline resisters gathered in the shade. Across the street, pipeline workers took a lunch break while a sedan marked “security” cruised up and down the road. The camp’s presence here is the latest manifestation of a movement that’s been building since the initial phase of the pipeline began in 2015 first as a mobile group in the swamps and now with a more fixed, permanent presence. “We’ve been around for a while,” Foytlin said. “We were a floating camp, decentralized. Then the opportunity came up for this little piece of property.”

    Cherri Foytlin addresses crowds from a flotilla on Bayou Lafourche to draw awareness to BBP on September 9, 2017. On the right is Pastor Harry Joseph of Mt. Triumph Baptist Church in St. James. (WNV/Alicia Cooke)

    The physical camp is now home base for a network of pipeline resisters who organize, protest and monitor construction along the BBP’s route. A rotating group lives on the land, running educational workshops and uploading photos and videos of digging and deforestation to their Facebook page and website. On May 24 and July 3 of this year, water protectors blocked access to work sites in St. James and Iberville Parishes, with multiple arrests each time.

    Growing opposition to the BBP has also meant an increase in both state and corporate policing. Last year, the private security firm TigerSwan infamous for its surveillance of the Standing Rock protests was denied a license to practice in Louisiana. But The Intercept reported in March that an apparent TigerSwan front organization was also seeking a license. And in Baton Rouge this May, legislators pushed through a weakened version of a bill that initially attempted to criminalize pipeline protest activity under the broad heading of “conspiracy.”

    Meanwhile at camp, Foytlin has noticed a shift in local police tactics. “We have a little conversation out there, a few of us gather, and five police cars just roll up. For what? We go out to eat and come out and there’s cops out there taking our tags. For what reason?” Most recently, two mobile surveillance stations have appeared at the construction site across from the property.

    Foytlin lives a short drive from camp, just across the parish line. “I realize the land I’m on is not my land either,” she said. “In the meantime, this is where I’m raising my family.” Before buying the Vermillion Parish resistance camp property, Foytlin explained, “The first thing we did is we asked the Atakapa Nation if it would be okay if we used this land to oppose the pipeline and to build this space.”

    In total, the BBP’s route passes through 11 of Louisiana’s southern parishes territory that has seen centuries of settler violence and dispossession, often in the name of resource extraction. But communities of Atakapa Ishak, Chitimacha, Choctaw and Houma people continue to live along this corridor.

    Monique Verdin is a member both of the Tribal Council of the United Houma Nation and the council of the L’Eau Est La Vie camp. She sees the BBP as embedded within the history of this region. “We’ve been doing this for a very long time. The Bayou Bridge pipeline is just the newest pipeline,” she said. “We’re facing rapid land loss here. My people are all at the ends of the bayous. We’ve been experiencing this cycle of injustice and this is just the newest case.”

    There are 17,000 members of the United Houma Nation, most of whom live in the Yakne Chitto, or Big Country “technically between the Atchafalaya and Mississippi Rivers, but really between Bayou Lafourche and the Atchafalaya,” Verdin said. “There were these scattered settlements and sites where our people retreated as they were dodging the Trail of Tears.” Counting the Houma, Bayou Lafourche provides drinking water to 300,000 people along its course. The BBP would pass under it as it approaches the refinery and export terminal at St. James.

    Water protectors from the L’eau est la Vie resistance camp protest at a construction site of the Bayou Bridge pipeline. (Facebook/L’eau est la Vie Camp)

    “You have to remember that what you’re looking at is a reflection of what the plantation and colonial mindset has bred here,” Verdin explained. “I like to remind people that where plantations once sat, prisons and petrochemical plants sit now. Before we had oil and gas we had cotton and sugarcane. Life has changed a little bit, but the control of the corporations? I compare it to the colonial system.”

    She reflected on the changes that her grandmother born in 1915 witnessed as the oil and gas industry moved into southern Louisiana. “I think it’s really appalling to now be in the 21st century, and to have Louisiana judges coming out with rulings against [oil companies], and then the company still just does what they want to do because they have the corporate, colonial power to do it. Our government, our justice system, has their hands tied. But the truth is, that’s how this state has been run for decades.”

    The United Houma Nation is a state-recognized tribe, but despite the United States agreeing to honor tribal treaties at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, the Houma still lack federal recognition. Their current petition has been pending since 1996. “That’s one of the things that’s really been frustrating,” Verdin said. “Because we’re not federally recognized, we don’t have to be consulted in the same ways. We don’t have the same rights, and we don’t have authority over our sacred sites. So even in our own backyards, literally, where we have these ancient mounds that are disappearing into the water, we have no jurisdiction because we’re not federally recognized.”

    The ongoing struggle for recognition, combined with economic dependence on oil and gas, has made many Houma reluctant to speak out against the BBP and other development projects, Verdin explained. “We’re a blue collar coast. Our people are barely getting by. They can barely pay their bills, let alone go sit in a public meeting and have to say, ‘Hey, my community matters.’”

    But Cherri Foytlin is optimistic about the broad coalition that has emerged to fight the pipeline in the courts and on the ground. “It’s a beautiful thing that we’ve been able to create here that I’ve never seen before in southern Louisiana. We are all very much committed to standing in solidarity to protect what we have.”

    Earlier in June, outside the Louisiana capitol building where dozens of protesters had just occupied the governor’s office, Alicia Cooke an organizer with environmental justice group 350 New Orleans explained the importance of these emergent networks.

    “If you’re not building trust as you go, these fights simply aren’t going to be sustainable,” she said. “If you do lose if pipelines do get built   are you going to be left with just a sense of despair that you weren’t able to stop them? Or will you have at least gained a community from that, who’s now strengthened for the next fight? Because there’s gonna be another fight.”

    Recent Stories

    • Review

    Uncovering Americans’ long history of hostility to conscription

    December 1, 2023

    A comprehensive new book by Vietnam War draft resister Jerry Elmer documents over a century of U.S. opposition to war and the military draft.

    • Long Read

    Think #MeToo didn’t make a real difference? Think again

    and Paul Engler
    November 28, 2023

    It takes effort to track the impacts of mass mobilizations like #MeToo, Occupy or Black Lives Matter, but understanding social change is impossible without such work.

    • Analysis

    How incarcerated people are helping at-risk youth avoid prison

    November 22, 2023

    By sharing our lived experiences, I have seen how incarcerated people can stop the pipeline funneling troubled teens to prison.

    • Analysis

    Cease fire, not aid

    November 13, 2023