HOUSTON (AP) — One of the federal judges considering whether to allow construction of a crude oil pipeline to continue in an environmentally fragile Louisiana swamp seemed to downplay concerns Monday about the project’s impact on forested wetlands.
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments over whether to permanently throw out a lower court’s preliminary injunction that initially stopped construction in the Atchafayala Basin.
A different panel of the appeals court last month suspended the injunction by Baton Rouge-based U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick, who is presiding over the lawsuit filed by Sierra Club and other environmental groups against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC.
The lawsuit alleges the Corps violated the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws when it approved a permit for the project. In issuing the February injunction, Dick concluded the project’s irreversible environmental damage outweighed the economic harm that a delay brought to the company.
Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman said “the record is replete with evidence of significant impact” that the pipeline will have on the environment, including the destruction of some trees that are thousands of years old and a reduction in the crawfish population.
But Judge Edith Jones appeared skeptical of some of Hasselman’s claims on the environmental dangers from the pipeline.
“They are not destroying wetlands. That’s a little inaccurate,” Jones said, suggesting Dick might have overstepped her authority by ordering the injunction.
The Corps had ordered Bayou Bridge to fund the re-establishment of forested wetlands located about 55 miles away from the area of construction as compensatory mitigation, but Hasselman said the efforts should take place much closer to the construction area.
Miguel Estrada, an attorney for Bayou Bridge, called it “appropriate compensation.”
Government lawyers have said the Corps analyzed the pipeline’s environmental impacts in “great detail” and required the company to protect more than 700 acres (2.8 sq. kilometers) of wetlands before it could begin work on the project.
A ruling was expected at a later date.
Hasselman told the court that “time is of the essence in this case” as he fears that if the injunction is thrown out, the pipeline could be completed by the time Dick makes a final decision on the lawsuit, which might not take place until after August.
In an April 19 court filing, Bayou Bridge said construction work resumed after the injunction was suspended and the company anticipated that approximately 95 of the 262 total acres in the pipeline’s path through the basin will be cleared by the end of April.
The Atchafayala Basin accounts for approximately 25 miles (35 kilometers) of the pipeline’s 162-mile-long (260-kilometer) path from Lake Charles to St. James Parish. Dick’s order only applied to the basin and didn’t prevent the company from working elsewhere along the pipeline’s route.
The basin is the nation’s largest river swamp and includes roughly 880,000 acres (3,560 sq. kilometers) 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.
Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana contributed to this report.
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