Judge explains order halting Louisiana pipeline construction

A federal judge who halted construction of a crude oil pipeline through a Louisiana swamp concluded that the project's irreversible environmental damage outweighs the economic harm that a delay brings to the company building it.

U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick issued a 61-page ruling Tuesday to explain her decision last week to stop construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline in environmentally fragile Atchafalaya Basin.

The judge said the project potentially threatens the hydrology of the basin and "poses the threat of destruction of already diminishing wetlands." She also agreed with environmental groups that centuries-old "legacy" trees can't be replaced once they're cut down.

Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC on Monday asked Dick to suspend her order while it appeals, but the judge refused. The company is asking the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review Dick's decision.

Dick clarified that the preliminary injunction she issued last Friday only applies to the basin. The order doesn't prevent the company from working elsewhere along the pipeline's 162-mile-long (261-kilometer) path from Lake Charles to St. James Parish.

Sierra Club and other environmental groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month, saying it violated the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws when it approved a permit for the project. If Dick's order stands, all construction work in the basin must stop until the lawsuit is resolved.

The company said the construction halt could cost it close to $1 million a day or $25 million a month, forcing contractors to lay off or furlough workers and hurting the local economy. But the judge said the company's estimated losses aren't supported by the "underlying data."

"The Court finds the temporary delay in reaping economic benefits does not outweigh the permanent harm to the environment that has been established as a result of the pipeline construction," she wrote.

Company spokeswoman Alexis Daniel said in statement Wednesday that Bayou Bridge Pipeline "respectfully disagrees" with the judge's ruling that the Corps did not properly consider the "limited impacts" of construction in the basin.

"In fact, the Corps issued two comprehensive environmental assessments, both of which had a 'Finding of No Significant Impact' to the Basin," she added.

Construction in the basin began last month. The basin is the nation's largest river swamp and includes roughly 880,000 acres (356,000 hectares) of forested wetlands, according to the groups' lawsuit.

Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC is a joint venture of Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66. Energy Transfer Partners built the Dakota Access pipeline, a project that sparked a string of violent clashes between protesters and police in North Dakota in 2016 and 2017.

The Bayou Bridge pipeline is the last link in a pipeline network connecting the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota with Louisiana refineries and export terminals. The 24-inch-wide (60-centimeter-wide) pipeline in south Louisiana is designed to have a maximum capacity of 480,000 barrels, or roughly 20 million gallons (75 million liters), of crude a day.

The Corps completed two environmental assessments for the project before issuing the permit. Company attorneys noted that the Corps' permit requires Bayou Bridge Pipeline to restore the basin's "pre-existing wetland contours and conditions" once the project is done.

However, the judge said the Corps didn't show it took a "hard look" at past, present and future "cumulative" environmental impacts.

"The Corps' and (company's) myopic view that they are only required to consider the impacts of this singular project is not consistent with the regulations or applicable jurisprudence," she wrote.

The environmental groups claim the Corps didn't adequately or properly consider the project's oil spill risks, but the judge said they didn't offer any evidence of that. Dick said the Corps gave "extensive and appropriate consideration" to the risk of oil spills along the entire route of the pipeline, including in the basin.

Earthjustice attorneys filed the suit on behalf of Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Gulf Restoration Network, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West.