Atchafalaya RIsing

The Bayou Bridge Pipeline, L’eau Est La Vie, and the struggle for Louisiana’s future

In a muddy field in the heart of Cajun Country, a group of protesters known as water protectors are currently gathered on land directly in the path of a crude-oil pipeline: the Bayou Bridge pipeline. The group, which is indigenous-led and guided by principles of direct action and non-violent resistance, allowed Big Easy Magazine to visit the resistance camp, known as L’eau Est La Vie, and report on their struggle against the pipeline project.

The Setting

The camp’s atmosphere is a mixture of camaraderie, good nature, and acknowledgment of the very real dangers that the protesters face, even as they deal with such earthly concerns like knee-high mud and the coming of winter. Some of the water protectors have camped in trees that are in the pipeline’s path to impede progress—and one protestor was cut from the tree and tased by police. Others have chained themselves to excavators. The camp goes out in boats to document the pipeline’s progress and observe the construction—and on one occasion their boats were flooded by an Energy Transfer Partner boat (the company that owns the project), forcing them to wade through the alligator-infested waters of the Atchafalaya Basin.

Despite its perils, however, the Atchafalaya is a crucial habitat for millions of birds and aquatic animals. The swamp is one of the last deep-water river swamps in the continental United States, and the largest contiguous forested wetland in the country. According to a spokesperson for the Gulf Restoration Network, Dustin Renaud, the swamp is part of a wetland system that once stretched to Ohio. The Atchafalaya basin habitat is a mixture of bald cypress, hardwood and water tupelo, growing along a lacy network of rivulets and bayous. The currents of the water flow south and provide oxygen to the crawfish and fish living in its waters. Much of the swamp, until recently, has been between zero and eight feet in elevation. The basin is a site where native species, such as egrets, woodcocks and bald eagles nest, as well as a place for migrating birds to rest and feed on the myriad species of insects, fish, and crawfish that make their home in the waters of the forest. On the upland sites, pecan trees, sweetgum trees, hickory, and mulberry trees provide food for the small mammals that kestrels, hawks and owls prey on.

The Black Snake

Pipelines—of which there are already many in the Atchafalaya Basin—create artificial dams called “spoilbanks” which alter the topography of the land. The pipelines, and their construction process, create humps and ridges that can tower above the rest of the swamp and alter the composition of the forest, encouraging the growth of upland hardwoods rather than cypress and other plants that thrive in the most saturated parts of the swamp.

Aside from the deforestation that results from the pipeline’s construction, and from the threat of pipeline leaks, the banks’ effect on hydrology can also be extremely destructive to the delicate infrastructure of the swamp.  The dams impede the flow of water through the swamp, reducing the flow of oxygen. As a result, the crawfish that get caught in traps can die from lack of oxygen before they are pulled out of the water. One of the main concerns about the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is that it will solidify and exacerbate existing environmental damage in a crucial ecosystem.

At camp, the water protectors review footage of the pipeline, discuss tactics, cook together in the well-stocked community kitchen. They roll cigarettes, laugh together and talk about winterizing the camp and finishing the bathhouse that they are constructing to give water protectors, as well as displaced people within Louisiana, a safe place to shower while they stay at camp. One water protector was embroidering a satirical patch for a friend of theirs and offered me a needle and thread to sew. I embroidered, ate fried chicken and worked in the heavy clay in the community garden.

Yet despite the group’s vigilant adherence to non-violence, they are facing 17 felony counts.


Gulf Oil Spill

Louisiana and Protest Rights

These felonies are a result of House Bill 727, which classified pipelines as critical infrastructure and made “unauthorized entry” to these sites a felony offense, with a potential for 5-20 years of prison time. The law was signed by the governor in May and went into effect this August.

“We have come out as strongly opposed to anti-pipeline-protest laws—these laws are dangerous. We do not support laws that criminalize the right to protest,” says Dustin Renaud, the Communications Director of the Gulf Restoration Project. His organization fights gulf ecosystem destruction, which includes advocating against new pipelines and working for increased monitoring for existing infrastructure. The law closely resembles a piece of model legislation put forth by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an extremely conservative lobbying group that, among other things, has attacked environmental protections and workers’ rights, partially by writing “model legislation” that is adopted by their allies in government.

The Bayou Bridge pipeline is owned by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the same company that built the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. In their own words, ETP owns “83,000 miles of natural gas, natural gas liquids (NGLs), refined products, and crude oil pipelines today”. They have acquired Sunoco, the fossil fuel company, as well as merging with Energy Transfer Equity in October of this year.

During the construction of The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), construction destroyed Native American burial grounds, and protesters were repeatedly arrested and brutalized. The protesters faced brutal cold only to be attacked by dogs, fired upon and teargassed by law enforcement and private security. One protester lost use of her arm after she was hit with a concussion grenade. The protestors allege the police were responsible for the attack. Another water protector was shot by a deputy in the eye with a bean-bag pellet and permanently lost half his sight. One water protector who I met at L’eau Est La Vie camp had been at the Standing Rock camp for five months last year. He faced weather so cold he claimed it took months to feel properly warm again and added that Standing Rock eventually realized that they could no longer vouch for people’s safety at the camps. The Bayou Bridge pipeline would be the final and southernmost arm connecting to the DAPL.

Although the DAPL is new, it has already begun to leak.

Waterkeeper Alliance and Greenpeace released a joint report in 2010 that documented that ETP’s pipelines have on average had one leak every 11 days.

Brutal Means

During the fight against the DAPL, ETP employed TigerSwan, a private security (read: mercenary) firm that performed security contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Jeremy Scahill, a reporter who spent years reporting on private security firms, also reported to Democracy Now that TigerSwan has strong links to Blackwater, the private security firm infamous for a string of civilian killings in the War on Terror, including the Nisour Square Massacre in Iraq (Blackwater is now known as Academi). Jim Reese, who co-founded TigerSwan, was named as “key personnel” for Blackwater in a report to the Senate Committee on Armed Services in 2010.

ETP wanted to contract TigerSwan for private security for the Bayou Bridge pipeline, however, this application was denied by Louisiana State Board of Private Security Examiners, due to charges that they are facing from the clashes at Standing Rock. However, as reported by “The Intercept”, only a little while later a TigerSwan employee attempted to obtain a license for a private security company that some suspected to be merely a shell company for TigerSwan. TigerSwan was not listed as her employer on her application and was removed from her  LinkedIn profile as well, however she revealed her affiliation to TigerSwan at a Louisiana State Board of Private Security Examiners deposition.

Currently, leaders at the L’Eau Est La Vie camp report that ETP has contracted to hire off-duty law enforcement to protect the pipeline, further confusing the line between fossil-fuel-centric private enterprise and the State.

One of the activists living and working with the camp informed me that many of the local landowners’ asks of ETP have been simple—not that the pipeline shouldn’t get built, but that ETP can guarantee environmental remediation and/or compensation to stakeholders in the case of an oil spill. However, ETP has continually denied that this is a possibility, despite their pipelines’ history of failing.

“It’s interesting fighting an enemy with virtually unlimited resources,” a seasoned water protector remarked to me.

The Lay of the Land

Though conservative media such as the Daily Caller have portrayed the water protectors in opposition with the local crawfishing industry, the camp reports that the crawfisherman that they have spoken to were in support of their work. When I spoke with one of the camp’s leaders and founders, Cherri Foytlin, she reported that the crawfishing people’s love of the basin aligns with that of the water protectors’:

“We went to them [people in the crawfishing industry] pretty early on, and we were very open about what we wanted to do, and they said that it wasn’t their gig but that they weren’t gonna get in our way… some of these men have been fighting to protect the basin their entire lives.”

Foytlin reports that the crawfishermen’s tactics have included monitoring the basin, but that in the face of so many pipelines, the tactic falls short.

“We have a different idea about tactics, but we have the same love and compassion for these swamps,” she says.

There are “obvious” connections between the local law enforcement and ETP’s security, which led to some frighteningly close calls at camp; on one occasion, local law enforcement apparently saw fit to “march” one of the camp’s opponents onto the property—this same individual apparently returned to the camp with a gun afterward and threatened the water protectors there. He hit one of the water protectors with the gun and scattered hog feed over the grounds to try and attract wild hogs to the site.

“Not a very nice guy,” concluded Foytlin.

Often, people drive by the camp and shout things at the camp, but, as a few informed me with smirks, it’s impossible to actually hear what they are saying. Foytlin also reports that members of the community also approach her and thank the water protectors for their work. Sometimes they receive donations—cat food, soda, and other supplies, from people in the surrounding area.

Very early on in the campaign, Foytlin claims another opponent released a smear video claiming that Foytlin was secretly rich and that her activism made her an unfit parent—Child Protective Services apparently took the video seriously enough to come to Foytlin’s home and question her. Foytlin was also once arrested while already in police custody.

Foytlin also reports that racism is evident in the way that local law enforcement treats the water protectors in their custody, noting that the non-white and non-cisgender members of their group were treated far more brutally at the hands of the police. She sees the camp’s work, along with the fight for the liberation of people of color and the struggle for environmental rights as all intricately connected.

Not only has ETP carried out a pattern of intimidation and environmental recklessness, but Foytlin also reported that locals have told her about spots along the pipeline where the pipe has been mislaid and needs to be dug up and fixed.

“I hear all the time that people say that pipelines are the safest way to transfer oil…if you think about a truck falls over on a road, then it’s just the contents of the truck, and it’s gonna fall on a road, and be cleanable. If a pipeline spills in the middle of a wetland, it could go for days, weeks, months before it gets fixed. The wetlands protect us from flooding. So it’s not a fair comparison to say that pipelines are safer… safer to whom, I guess you could ask. Climate change is not a political game, it’s a scientific fact. And people have been duped into working against their own interests. Especially here in southeast Louisiana, where we lose a football field of land every hour.”

All the leadership of the pipeline opposition has been people living in the area or people from Louisiana. Foytlin and other water protectors mentioned that ETP has attempted to paint the pipeline’s opposition as people from out of the area, as a tactic to discredit the activists. While it’s true, Foytlin agreed, that some of the activists are from far away, the camp’s leadership is based in Louisiana. ETP has made enemies around the world, Foytlin informed me, so people come from far away to fight them.

ETP has used a variety of tactics to try to agitate frustrations against the camp, including accusing the camp of littering in the swamp. Statements such as these, where opponents to climate activism draw false comparisons between isolated acts of contamination, and systematic enabling of fossil fuels industry, are common. Consider when detractors point out that leaders such as Al Gore use planes to travel, or fossil-fuel-based energy to heat and cool his home thereby insinuating that his activism is less valid as they are using fossil-fuel based transportation, or when critics say that environmental marches leave behind paper flyers and food wrappers in their wake.

While that is hardly doing the environment any favors, it is also clearly a false equivalency.

However, these tactics are effective—the camp began receiving death threats after the video was released.

In the meantime, local landowners claim that ETP has not properly obtained permission to construct the pipeline on their land, and are suing ETP for illegally constructing the pipeline there. In contrast, Foytlin claims that some of the trespassing charges that the water protectors face are from cases where the protesters were given permission from the landowners to be on their land—while ETP lacked the easement necessary to be there in the first place. At the time of the interview, none of the felony charges had been picked up by the DA.

Despite a series of injunctions and court battles, ETP continues to build the pipeline through the Atchafalaya. Renaud reports that despite the pipelines snaking through the wetland, there has never been so much as an independent study that looks at the cumulative impact of the pipelines.

Says Renaud, “The fact that we’re still building pipelines when we could be transitioning to clean energy is telling—we’re already seeing the impacts of climate change in our state and on our coast. There is a better way forward, but the industry is embedded in politics—and people are waking up to that fact.”

ETP did not respond to Big Easy Magazine’s request for comment.

Jesse Lu Baum is a queer writer and cartoonist originally from Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been featured in publications such as, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Mid-City Messenger and Preservation in Print. Aside from writing, she has also worked as a non-profit home repair person, a theater bartender, and a research assistant. If you liked this piece, you should check out Jesse’s other work here.

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