A Louisiana appeals court heard oral arguments Wednesday, January 8 in a case brought by Louisiana landowners against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline Company that illegally trespassed and began pipeline construction without landowners’ consent.
Attorneys for the landowners are asking the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a lower court decision granting the pipeline company’s eminent domain right to seize the land. That granting of expropriation was made despite a finding that the company had unlawfully entered and damaged the land.
The 163-mile Bayou Bridge pipeline runs through 11 parishes in southern Louisiana and crosses ecologically sensitive land including the Atchafalaya Basin, the country’s largest river swamp, containing old growth trees and many endangered species. The pipeline is the tail end of an oil transport network that begins with the controversial Dakota Access pipeline and is bringing North Dakota crude oil to the Gulf Coast. Energy Transfer (formerly Energy Transfer Partners) owns both the Bayou Bridge and Dakota Access pipelines.
In 2018, three landowners with property interests spanning 38 acres in the Atchafalaya Basin countersued Bayou Bridge Pipeline Company (BBP) challenging the company’s eminent domain lawsuit. BBP only began eminent domain proceedings after landowners tried to obtain an injunction to stop the company from trespassing.
BBP had previously entered onto the land without permission and began clearing trees and trenching. The trial court fined the company for illegal trespassing — at a total cost of $450 — and then ruled that the company could take the land through the power of eminent domain.
“It is surprising to many people that pipeline companies have been handed the extraordinary power of eminent domain over Louisiana landowners,” said Pam Spees, senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “That is cause enough for concern, but as this case shows, BBP didn’t even bother to respect that very accommodating state law, and instead bull-dozed ahead, took the property, destroyed trees, built its pipeline, and then only sought an expropriation judgment after a courageous landowner sued to get them off the land.”
According to KPLC TV, during court proceedings, attorney for Energy Transfer Ian Macdonald “admitted the company trespassed for five months, but says they followed required procedures after that to get required approvals and compensate landowners.”
The Aaslestads in front of a hotel the night after the previous chapter of their court battle ended in December 2018, with a $450 fine to Energy Transfer. Credit: Julie Dermansky
The landowners, brother and sister Peter and Katherine Aaslestad and Theda Larson Wright, appealed the trial court decision in September 2019. On Wednesday, their attorneys argued that BBP violated their rights to property and due process, and that eminent domain is not justified because the pipeline is not in the public interest.
“How can we stand here right now in Lake Charles when the coast is eroding at a football size field of land every 45 minutes, and the state itself has said that pipelines have contributed to that land loss, how can you sit here and say that more oil pipelines are automatically, per se, good for Louisiana and serve a public purpose and necessity?” Spees said at a press conference following the hearing.
“This case is important not only for Louisiana property owners, but for all Louisianans,” said Misha Mitchell, attorney with Atchafalaya Basinkeeper. “These landowners have stuck out their necks to demand constitutional protection and to ensure that oil pipelines are evaluated not only in terms of economic benefits but with the greater public interest in mind, including public safety and welfare.”
The landowners and their counsel now await the appeals court ruling.
“We’re hopeful that justice can be done in this case and we can get back on the right track,” Spees said.
Main image: In 2018, Bayou Bridge pipeline’s right-of-way cleared of the cypress-tupelo forest in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin before the pipeline was installed. Credit: Julie Dermansky