Fighting Back in the Shadow of Risk and Environmental Injustice in Louisiana

by Lauren Reid

July 2, 2018

The fossil fuel industry has a long and problematic history in Louisiana, particularly when it comes to building refineries and petrochemical plants in predominately African American, Indigenous, and minority communities. And now, with the intrusion of even more infrastructure — the Bayou Bridge Pipeline — it feels like another case of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss"... except this construction isn't going down without a real fight.

View of construction crew backfilling the trench burying the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, next to Melinda Tillies's house in Youngsville, Louisiana from her kitchen. The pipeline was installed about 25 feet from her home on her neighbors land. There are no federal rules about how close a pipeline can be built next to a home.

If you’ve ever been to the Audubon Aquarium in New Orleans, you’ll find yourself wandering through its largest exhibit — showcasing the vast, teeming marine life one would expect to find in the Gulf of Mexico. The animals are truly glorious to behold. Sharks, sea turtles, and schools of fish pulse in and out of a carefully built structure within the tank — finding sanctuary and protection from the world at large.

But then you do a double take.

That structure they swim through is a giant replica of an offshore oil rig you will find in the Gulf of Mexico.

Yes, this is the same Gulf that, in 2010, was the site of the largest marine oil spill in history. This is a place where thousands of livelihoods were profoundly disrupted — if not destroyed — by the estimated 210 million barrels of oil that poured into their water. This is the same region that loses a football field size of land every hour due to coastal erosion, which is directly linked to extensive drilling and dredging of canals by the oil industry. How you might ask, did no one question this setup?

Understanding the enormous grip the fossil fuel industry has on the state is one place to start.

Louisiana has the single highest concentration of oil, natural gas, and petrochemical facilities in the Western hemisphere, and It’s also why it’s nearly impossible to meet someone that isn’t intimately affected in some way by it. I would know, I live here. If you’ve heard of Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, then you can start to get a sense of the peril many face by simply growing up and living here.

While an industrial corridor of more than 150 plants and refineries rapidly grew in that area over the last century, its placement significantly intruded into predominantly African American, Indigenous and minority communities who lived in the path — whose rights and safety were all but invisible to developers, the state, and local government. Towns like Freetown — a community established almost 150 years ago by freed slaves — were given no consideration when the industry moved in. The only say our communities were allowed was in choosing which new awful reality they’d prefer: either continue living in one of the most prominent zones of chemical plant explosions in the U.S, with the second highest rate of toxic releases in the country, or have your land bought-out as part of a ‘buffer zone’ — protecting the industry from future lawsuits, while vastly displacing century-old communities in its wake.

You would think these neighborhoods and communities had suffered enough from the intrusion. Yet unfortunately, many of these same people are facing another critical threat to their home —  the Bayou Bridge Pipeline.

If this 163-mile line completed, it’s route will carve up 11 parishes in Louisiana and cross 700 bodies of water including Bayou LaFourche, a critical reservoir that supplies the United Houma Nation and 300,000 residents with drinking water. This is particularly dangerous considering that Bayou Bridge Pipeline is an Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) project — that’s the same fossil fuel company behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and along with all its joint ventures, has spilled over 3.6 million gallons of hazardous liquids over the last 15 years. Louisiana has a fragile ecosystem, and it would only take one spill to potentially destroy the drinking water for thousands of people along with the livelihoods of those surviving off the bayou.

Yet none of this is going down without a fight.

Communities all across the region are resisting against these practices, and one of the most dedicated forces of resistance is the L’eau Est La Vie Camp — a group of activists working to directly prevent the final stop of the Dakota Access Pipeline route from being built. It is a community without leaders who raise up the voices of the Indigenous, black, and femme activists who are fiercely protecting their home, the bayous, and the Houma, Chitimacha, Chata, and Atakapaw territory in southern Louisiana.

The chilling reality is, community members who push back and protect their land are facing a never-ending onslaught of tactics that reinforce the long-told narrative here that the oil industry is the one worth protecting in Louisiana, not those who live in it — gross intimidation, surveillance of activists from both state agencies and private security firms, the quickening pace of construction, and passing legislation that criminalizes protest around “critical infrastructure” all help protect the interests of ETP. One particularly egregious issue for residents is that despite a judge’s ruling that the pipeline permit cannot remain in effect without an emergency and evacuation plan provided to the community, construction has not only continued but the pace has rapidly increased, with local regulators and officials doing nothing to stop it.

Despite all of this, the activists of L’eau Est La Vie Camp continue to put their bodies and lives on the line to protect their home. And while ETP forges ahead with its dangerous pipeline, continuing to paint a convoluted story of protestors as some type of radical eco-terrorists who should be “removed from the gene pool” — the reality is truly the opposite. Those here who stand up to ETP are local Indigenous leaders. They’re crawfishermen and women. They’re African American communities, landowners, and environmental justice advocates. They are the ones fighting day and night protect themselves from a society and an industry that hasn’t ceased extracting everything it can from them in the name of profit.

Whether that’s to protect their land, physical health, or the communities who never asked, nor were frankly ever considered when yet another industrial construction site took over their neighborhood — many of those who protest these pipelines are doing so because the oil and gas industry as yet again left them no other choice.

Please help support and amplify the much-needed work of L’eau Est La Vie Camp. Here are three ways you can do so:

  1. Join them. Help support their efforts at the camp:

June 6 BBP Construction near L'eau Est La Vie Camp

It's really lovely here at camp – the crawfish farms nearby make a great resting spot for all sorts of migratory birds, and you couldn't ask for better weather. It might be paradise except that the whole region's water has already been toxified by the petrochemical industry. As you read this, the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is being constructed within sight of our camp, and it is truly heartbreaking. If you can't come here to help out, please check out this list of banks and other corporations responsible for the pipeline, and take action wherever you can:

Posted by L'eau Est La Vie Camp on Sunday, June 10, 2018

  1. Follow their social media and help amplify the work they are doing:

This is a crucial moment in the fight to stop the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. If you ever were thinking of joining us here in…

Posted by L'eau Est La Vie Camp on Monday, May 7, 2018

  1. Call Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and demand that construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline stop in St. James parish until an evacuation route is put in place and the community has an adequate emergency response plan.

Lastly, you can help stand up to Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Sign this petition to tell banks around the world to stop funding ETP because of their violations of human rights, including egregious violations of Indigenous rights.

Lauren Reid

By Lauren Reid

Lauren Reid is the International Communications Lead with the Clean Air Now Campaign. She first volunteered with Greenpeace on the Rainbow Warrior in 2015, for a campaign against overfishing and human rights abuses observed at sea. Lauren is based in New Orleans, LA and you can peep her on Twitter @Lo_Pickles.

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