BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A federal judge heard testimony Thursday that construction of a crude oil pipeline in a Louisiana swamp is tearing down irreplaceable, centuries-old trees, destroying animal habitats and jeopardizing fishermen's livelihoods.
But the company building the Bayou Bridge pipeline though the heart of Cajun country insists that governmental regulators issued a permit for the project after thoroughly and properly assessing its ecological risks.
Environmental groups have asked U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick to issue a preliminary injunction that would suspend construction of the pipeline through the environmentally fragile Atchafalaya Basin. A hearing for the groups' request adjourned for the night without a decision by the judge and is scheduled to resume Friday.
The judge set aside more than two hours for lawyers to present their arguments before she rules. On Jan. 30, Dick rejected the groups' request for a temporary restraining order that would have stopped construction until Thursday's hearing.
But the judge pledged to give both sides a fair and thorough hearing before she decides whether to order a halt to the pipeline construction in the basin until the case is completely resolved.
The groups, including Sierra Club, sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Jan. 11. Their suit accuses the Corps of violating the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws when it approved a permit for Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC to build the 162-mile-long (262-kilometer), 24-inch-wide (60-centimeter-wide) pipeline from Lake Charles to St. James Parish.
The Corps says it completed two environmental assessments for the project before issuing the permit. The groups claim the Corps' review of the project was inadequate and ultimately want the court to vacate the permit.
Justice Department attorney Judith Coleman said the Corps isn't an opponent or proponent of the project.
"We're here to defend our permit," she told Dick.
On Thursday, the judge heard several hours of testimony from five witnesses for the environmental groups. The testimony was designed to show that the construction work, including tearing down centuries-old trees to make room for the pipeline, is causing "irreparable harm" to the basin's ecological system and wildlife.
Jody Meche, president of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West, said the project will compound flood risks and other pipeline-related problems that have been mounting for years.
"We're losing our basin," Meche said.
Scott Eustis, community science director for the Gulf Restoration Network, said the basin is "the crown jewel of wetlands."
"There is absolutely no place in creation like the Atchafalaya Basin," he said.
Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC is a joint venture of Dallas-based 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 Louisiana pipeline is designed to have a maximum capacity of 480,000 barrels, or roughly 20 million gallons (75 million liters), of crude a day.
Energy Transfer Partners spokeswoman Alexis Daniel has said "construction activities" began in the basin 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.
The lawsuit calls it "astonishing" that the Corps issued the permit for the pipeline without conducting a full "environmental impact statement" for the project. A federal law requires agencies to prepare those detailed statements if a project will "significantly" affect the environment.
But company attorneys claimed the groups misled the court by mentioning only one of the Corps' environmental assessments of the project. The other assessment examined the risks and potential effects of an oil spill from the pipeline, company attorneys said.
"Even though the Corps determined that the threat of an oil spill is low, it nonetheless analyzed impacts in the highly unlikely event that one were to occur," they wrote in a court filing last Friday.
Bayou Bridge Pipeline attorney William Scherman said the Corps knew about the removal of trees in the basin when it approved the permit.
"They can't really dispute that the Corps followed their regulations," he said.
Earthjustice attorneys filed the suit on behalf of Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Gulf Restoration Network, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West.