Saving What's Left of Paradise
That morning, three of us woke early—earlier than most people visiting New Orleans—and drove to a rural area not far from Rayne, La. A local woman there had asked Cherri to come and monitor the pipeline work being done. We came to assist. The property is home to five pipelines. Yellow marker poles run nearly the entire length, and now mud pits and excavators mark the placement for a sixth pipeline: the Bayou Bridge pipeline.
“I brought a book,” Cherri says, digging through her bag. She pulls out a work by James Baldwin and flips through a few pages before getting pulled back into conversation. She jokes about a recent phone call in which a man appeared shocked by her eloquence and depth of knowledge. “What was he expecting?” she laughs. Adopting a caricatured Native American accent, she says, “Huh—we no want pipeline.”
To the chagrin of officials and members of industry, Cherri Foytlin is neither simple nor delicate. She and her fellow “water protectors” manage to monitor both Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company behind the Bayou Bridge pipeline, as well as the pipeline construction itself. And they do this without anything like the massive, government-sponsored surveillance network that’s being used on them—at their homes and at the resistance camp, L’eau Est La Vie. In the most oil-friendly state in the country, putting yourself and your life directly in the path of a gigantic pipeline project is no small matter. When that project belongs to one of the most violent and destructive companies in a violent and destructive industry, the obstacles are even bigger.
The Bayou Bridge pipeline is a proposed 162-mile crude oil pipeline that would connect the oil from the Dakota Access pipeline and the shale oil fields of North Dakota to the refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. ETP, the same company behind the Dakota Access pipeline, has already shown the world what it’s willing to do to push a pipeline project through: attack unarmed protesters with dogs, tear gas, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, high-pressure water hoses in subzero temperatures and heavily armed private security. TigerSwan, the private security company that used military-style counterinsurgency tactics at Standing Rock, N.D., is currently appealing a decision in order to get a license to operate in Louisiana. ETP CEO Kelcy Warren remarked in March that pipeline protesters should be “removed from the gene pool.”
ETP’s taste for violence is not restricted merely to people, however. Its parent company, Sunoco, is famous for spilling more crude oil than any other company—racking up more than 200 leaks between 2010 and 2016. ETP is apparently on a mission to keep that No. 1 spot, logging five spills in the first six months of the Dakota Access pipeline’s operation. The ETP Mariner East 2 project in Pennsylvania, still under construction, has already wreaked havoc on both people and ecosystems along the proposed route. Last year, FracTracker reported 90 spill events in 42 distinct locations, amounting to 202,000 gallons of leaked drilling fluids. In January, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection suspended ETP’s construction permits, citing permit violations that included even more spills and horizontal directional drilling at sites where it had no legal right to drill. About a month and $12 million later, ETP got the go-ahead to carry on with construction. In March, ETP’s existing natural gas liquids pipeline, Mariner East 1, was temporarily shut down due to the emergence of numerous sinkholes along the pipeline route.
Meanwhile, ETP’s proposed 713-mile Rover pipeline has been equally disastrous. Worked stopped in April 2017 following a 2-million-gallon drilling fluid spill, but it was allowed to pick back up again in December. This year, in January, another 150,000 gallons of drilling fluid spilled at the same site. The pipeline, slated to carry fracked gas through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan, has already racked up more “noncompliance incidents” than any other interstate gas pipeline.
Still, Louisiana officials and the Army Corps of Engineers feel the Bayou Bridge pipeline is worth the risk to both people and planet. Their primary argument: economic benefit for Louisiana. On March 1, a coalition of groups held a news conference at Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office in Baton Rouge. Anne Rolfes, founding director of Louisiana Bucket Brigade, asked speakers from along the proposed route of the pipeline to hold up images of license plates. The numbers were blurred but the state names were clear: Tennessee, Texas, Alabama, even Utah. The pictures were of construction vehicles at sites along the Bayou Bridge pipeline route, Rolfes explained. “The only rationale for this pipeline has been that it’s going to create jobs,” she said. But the company itself admits that the project will create only 12 permanent jobs, suggesting that the promised economic gains for Louisianians may be nothing more than a pipe dream.
Travis London, a resident of Louisiana petrochemical hub Donaldsonville and spokesman for the HELP Association of St. James Parish, explained the real “gifts” from big industry. “The economic situation in Louisiana is awful,” he said. “The pollution is killing Louisiana’s tourism, the hunting, the fishing, workforce, education … just everything. … Upcoming small businesses don’t get tax exemption, but industry does. … Ain’t enough jobs created. Ain’t enough opportunities here. Ain’t enough faith in most Republicans or Democrats, either. There are more industrial plants in Louisiana than ants in an ant pile.”
Indeed, a report released in February 2016 by the Environmental Integrity Project shows that in 2015 alone, seven liquid natural gas facilities were proposed or permitted, along with two natural gas processing and distribution plants, five fertilizer factories, five chemical plants and a petroleum refinery. According to the report, these projects boosted Louisiana’s emissions by 30 percent, taking the already high World Resource Institute estimate of about 230 million tons of greenhouse gases to roughly 300 million tons. The report warns regulators to be “vigilant in monitoring and controlling” the existing and new emission-heavy projects. Unfortunately, regulators appear either unable or unwilling to keep new and existing projects in check.
At a news conference at Gov. Edwards’ office on March 21, the HELP Association, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, L’eau Est La Vie Camp and the climate activist group 350 New Orleans released a report outlining spills and accidents in St. James Parish between Jan. 1, 2017, and Feb. 25, 2018. St. James Parish is to be the end point for the Bayou Bridge pipeline and is already home to plenty of unstable energy infrastructure. In that time period, 37 accidents were reported to the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center (NRC). The report says that this number is actually deceptively low, as the NRC expects industry to self-report. Furthermore, there’s “not a single instance of an industry report corresponding to a neighbor’s complaint, meaning that there are at least eight occasions—and likely far more—in which industry failed to report an accident.”
Industries in St. James also routinely fail to notify residents of harmful situations. On March 4, 12,558 gallons of crude oil spilled from a storage tank belonging to the Plains All American pipeline. Despite the possibility of an underground leak, residents were not contacted or cautioned, and there was no follow-up by regulators or industry. In one week, there were two ammonia spills, and last month, an oil barge spilled oil into the St. James water system. Meanwhile, residents suffer illnesses ranging from miscarriages to nausea. Pollutants have been found in the air, soil and water, and chemical odors can linger in neighborhoods for days or weeks at a time. “The point is to say that our state clearly cannot handle the existing infrastructure in St. James Parish, so we shouldn’t put any more there,” Rolfes said.
Elsewhere along the pipeline route, direct-action tactics are being deployed, with a blend of solemnity and humor. On March 13, a water ceremony was held in the path of construction equipment. On torn-up earth and mud, a barefoot water protector spoke of honoring ancestors, the land and the water. On Monday, a dancing crawfish and friends shut down construction. In the days before, a Water Is Life Caravan paraded along the pipeline route, its members talking to people and playing music.
Legal battles are ongoing, but they often only mirror the flawed system they’re a part of. On March 15, a judge reversed a temporary injunction halting work in the Atchafalaya Basin. The work stoppage lasted less than a month and was violated at least once. Cherri responded to the decision with disappointment but resolve. “This is violence,” she said. “They’re hoping we’ll stop. But I ain’t afraid of their flags. I ain’t afraid of their easements. … I ain’t afraid of their laws. I ain’t afraid of nothing. … We’re gonna keep fighting.” She put out a call for help, both financial and on-the-ground. Despite the economic, physical, emotional and mental strains, the fight will continue. “This is the time we were made for. This is it. We can’t be afraid,” she said.
It starts to rain. Cherri hands us a couple of umbrellas and we stand and watch the construction continue—even though it’s supposed to stop during rainy weather. Later, my friend and I watch the sun set over crawfish ponds. There is paradise around the dug-up ditches, between the lines of destruction.
When you really stop to look at it, it’s easy to see why the fight will always continue. You begin to realize why, in that present fight, we build for the future—why L’eau Est La Vie Camp is growing food and teaching kids about permaculture and food sovereignty. You begin to see that this isn’t about stopping life to do battle. The battles fold into life. Life on the front lines of capitalism’s battles is a fiddle and ukulele duo serenading the camp cat while she chases gnats. It’s watching stupid YouTube videos in our tent before falling asleep. It’s rigorous planning across 160 miles of proposed pipeline. It’s coordinating different groups from different backgrounds with different ideologies. It’s holding space and blocking work. It’s taking direction from indigenous women and recognizing a 500-plus year history of colonization, now embodied by earth movers and colored flags marking pipeline easements. It’s waiting—and watching. It’s trying to figure out how we on the left can do better than just theory and talk.
For instance, can we create an action force for various areas of the country that’s ready to deploy in times like these? Can we support the battles and the life inside them? Can we stare down our time and our place and say, “I am not afraid”? Folks in Louisiana are doing these things—and they could use your help.