By Steve Hardy
NAPOLEONVILLE — Conservationists clashed with oil-and-gas professionals again Wednesday night over the proposed Bayou Bridge pipeline.
Environmental groups called for ecological reviews and more stringent construction standards for the pipeline, designed to run between Lake Charles and St. James Parish.
Industry professionals and several local politicians tried to allay the fears of dozens of conservationists who turned out to protest the proposal.
Project Manager Cary Farber said the pipeline is "exactly the type" of infrastructure project envisioned by President Donald Trump's administration.
"The overall project will RESULT IN NO NET LOSS OF WATERS IN THE U.S. (INCLUDING WETLANDS)," read a slide on his presentation at the state Department of Natural Resources hearing.
Environmentalists were generally unimpressed by the reassurances.
"We hear this story every time — 'We're gonna do it right this time,'" even though the state has a history of oil leaks and pipelines allowed to fall into disrepair, said Sierra Club representative Woody Martin.
As politician after politician lined up to throw their support behind the project, members of the crowd began to chant "How much? How much?" in reference to how much they receive in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry. Former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, received the brunt of the ire.
Oil-and-gas professionals and environmental groups have sparred over the pipeline for months. The debate has occurred against the backdrop of the demonstrations in the Standing Rock Reservation against the Dakota Access pipeline, which some have attributed to the national interest in pipeline construction.
Industry professionals argue pipelines are a far safer way to transport oil than by truck, train or boat. New technology and procedures, such as remotely controlled valves, will make the infrastructure safer than those of the past, they have asserted. Wednesday, Farber said new pipes would be tested by running water through at 125 percent of operating capacity for 8 hours.
An industry-funded study by LSU determined the pipeline would generate some $829 million in economic activity, mostly from construction rather than operation. A representative of a pipe manufacturers' union, Luke Johnson, also spoke Wednesday in support of the project for the jobs it would create in his line of work.
Environmentalists and crawfishermen have challenged the oil and gas companies. Many of their concerns are based on the potential impact to the Atchafalaya Basin. However, DNR, which hosted Wednesday's public forum, does not have jurisdiction over that region.
The agency's aim Wednesday was to gather input on the wetlands of the greater coastal region, including inland parishes like Assumption, where the meeting was held. Groups like the Gulf Restoration Network have pivoted focus to Bayou Lafourche, which provides fresh water to nearby wetlands and drinking water to residents in four parishes. It has called for DNR to deny permits for the pipeline until the impact on the bayou can be studied.
"If it is indeed so safe, then let there be an environmental impact statement … (which) would clarify the issue," said May Nguyen, of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.
She also called on DNR to extend the comment period on the project to account for the recent tornado which struck the area and may affect locals' ability to voice their thoughts on the pipeline.
Scott Eustis, a coastal wetlands specialist for the Gulf Restoration Network, a conservation organizaiton, also called for more study and for the company to go deeper beneath waterways than is federally required, and to make sure those measures are followed for each river and stream, not just the major waterways.
DNR received the permit application for Bayou Bridge about a year ago. Following the public hearing, it has 15 days to make a decision on the permit, though the agency could claim an extension if it determines more studies are warranted, said DNR communications director Patrick Courreges.
DNR can accept the permit outright, accept it with provisions — for instance, requiring an access road to be built to certain specifications — or deny the request until a particular issue is addressed. It's "pretty common" for the state to send a request back so the applicant can address a concern, Courreges said.