The trees are dying, the grasses are dying. The birds we have are all crows – no hummingbirds left, no songbirds, a lifelong resident of Freetown, Louisiana, said as Hurricane Nate approached and plans continued to build a controversial oil pipeline that will end nearby.
Opponents of the pipeline, now that it has received the go-ahead from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, are urging the state to require the company building it to conduct an environmental impact statement for the land it traverses.
Freetown and St. James Parish, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, are known as Cancer Alley. It is an area with a heavy concentration of industrial plants. The parish — Louisiana’s version of a county — has a population of about 2,000, most of them black.
Sitting on a sliver of land along the Mississippi River about 50 miles upstream from New Orleans, Freetown was established 145 years ago by freed slaves.
“They were family people, coming together as neighbors and friends,” a resident of the community whose family has lived in Freetown from its inception told the Washington Times in 2014. “They made gardens and everybody shared their gardens. They reached out and helped each other. They didn’t have that much.”
Today in Freetown you would be hard-pressed to get a garden to grow.
“Fruit is falling off the tree before it gets ripe,” Eve Butler, a lifelong resident, said. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve planted, it doesn’t grow. If this was a problem we caused ourselves, that would be one thing. But this is not a problem we caused.”
Butler blames the oil and gas industry for the horrible pollution in St. James Parish, saying it has caused asthma and cancer in the young and old, tainted the drinking water and ruined the soil.
“People say, ‘You’ve always had pipelines. What’s the big deal?’ in adding one more,” Butler said.
“The big deal is that fruit falls off a tree before it is ripe. It doesn’t matter what you plant in the ground, it isn’t going to grow.”
She added: “Industry has no respect for regulation.”
In February, hundreds of opponents gathered to object to the proposed $670 million Bayou Bridge project, but the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources approved the proposal by Energy Transfer Partners.
Energy Transfer Partners is also responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline, of which this, the Bayou Bridge, would be the final leg.
This portion of the pipeline, as proposed, would stretch 162.5 miles, running through 11 parishes, from Lake Charles to St. James, and cutting through the Atchafalaya Basin, a national heritage area known for its vast cypress-tupelo swamps and the largest remaining contiguous tract of coastal cypress trees in the country. As least 6.6 miles of the proposed pipeline would crisscross its forested wetlands. In total, the pipeline would cross 700 waterways.
The southernmost section of the pipeline is to carry crude oil from an oil and gas hub in Nederland, Texas, to a terminal in St. James Parish.
Opponents say it would cause significant harm to the region’s crawfish industry, harm the wetlands it crosses, and threaten the drinking water supply.
And, they say, once construction is complete, only 12 permanent jobs will be created locally.
Despite significant turnouts of protesters at public meetings, and thousands of emails urging the state not to issue the permits, it did.
The discovery of oil in Louisiana in 1902 set off a struggle, still continuing, between people who hunt, fish and farm and the extractive industries. The problem, boiled down, is that drilling for oil and gas, sending it to refineries, and on from there, is very hard to do without hurting the air, land and water.
Fishermen and environmentalists say the thousands of canals and pipelines built statewide for mineral extraction have altered the course of rivers and drainage, accelerating erosion and increasing flooding.
That’s not the way the oil industry sees it.
“It’s the safest and most economical way to transport crude,” said Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. “People should be celebrating this project.”
Kerry Farber, a spokesman for Energy Transfer Partners, said during a community meeting to discuss the pipeline in February that the project is “exactly what President Trump had in mind,” in deregulating industries to create jobs.
Farber said the pipeline will provide “reliable, safe, economical transportation for oil.”
Still, even the oil and gas industry concedes that drilling contributes to Louisiana’s coastal lands melting into the sea.
Costly plans to save what’s left of the coast are in the works, though underfunded, and no one knows where even the insufficient funding will come from. All of them involve improving drainage.
Scott Eustis, a wetlands specialist for the Gulf Restoration Network, said during a telephone conference call on Thursday that the pipeline and Louisiana’s plans to save what’s left of its fragile coast are at cross purposes.
“To all of the politicians, the plan for the coast is in drainage, drainage, drainage,” Eustis said. “This pipeline project crosses 700 water bodies. That’s a lot of culverts. It’s a lot of places where [the Bayou Bridge] is going to trench right through a stream. How are we trying to spend money to try and increase culverts and then we are going to block 60 of them?”
At a Baton Rouge rally to protest the pipeline in January, Eustis called the pipeline the “biggest, baddest thing I’ve seen in my career.”
Pipeline opponents, including Eustis, say the very least Louisiana should demand from Energy Transfer Partners is an environmental impact statement.
“It wasn’t until an environmental impact study was done by geologists at Port Fourchon in the 1970s that they realized, ‘Hey we’re losing the coast,’” Eustis said. Port Fourchon lies just east of the mouth of the Mississippi.
Ethan Buckner, an energy campaigner with Earthworks, said “the fight is not over” about the Dakota Access Pipeline, “and it has grown.”
The Sioux tribes’ protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline in the Dakotas last winter — also for fear of environmental contamination — gained worldwide coverage, but 2,000 miles away, on the pipeline’s proposed southern end, it still appears to be a local issue.
Environmentalists say that’s not the case.
“It’s clear that Energy Transfer Partners is a company that wherever they build they violate rights, cause pollution, spill where they build, leak, are not accountable to regulators, communities or other people,” Buckner said.
“This pipeline will create only 12 permanent jobs,” Cherri Foytlin of BOLD Louisiana said during the conference call. “I know my livelihood is not worth 12 jobs.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, supports the pipeline.
BOLD Louisiana and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade have scheduled rallies at the governor’s mansion on Tuesdays for the rest of the month to push Edwards to respond to what they say have been hundreds of phone calls and letters requesting an environmental impact statement for the pipeline.
“Edwards said he is in favor of the pipeline,” Foytlin said, “and if he is for it, he should have no problem coming forward and defending his position.”
Top photo | An oil facility is seen in the middle of canals dug for oil pipelines on the coast of Louisiana, Wednesday, July 28, 2010. (AP/Patrick Semansky)