By Mark Schleifstein
Environmental groups attempting to block the construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline across the environmentally sensitive Atchafalaya Basin asked a state court to force the company to turn over records involving its use of eminent domain to seize private property or obtain easements on property along the pipeline route.
The environmental groups also want records the company may have collected on individuals and organizations opposing the pipeline, including surveillance records or other operations conducted by TigerSwan, a private security company that Bayou Bridge's parent companies used in responding to demonstrators opposing the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota.
The suit, called a writ of mandamus, was filed against Bayou Bridge Pipeline, LLC, and its president, Chris Martin, in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, Louisiana Bucket Brigade and 350 New Orleans.
In a response to a request for comment on the suit, a spokesman for Energy Transfer LLC, the parent company of the pipeline, said the company does not comment on ongoing litigation.
"As with any infrastructure project, we respect that there are a wide range of opinions. Pipelines, like Bayou Bridge, are heavily regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation for both safety and reliability, and have proven to be the safest, most efficient means of transporting energy resources," said a statement the company issued. "This project has been in development since 2015 and has been carefully vetted by all applicable regulatory agencies and local governments along its route."
The statement was basically the same as one issued by the company a week ago when environmental groups sued the company and the Army Corps of Engineers in federal court in New Orleans to overturn permits issued for construction of the pipeline.
The writ filed Tuesday asks the court, which handles most cases involving state government, to rule that Bayou Bridge acted as an arm of the state in filing lawsuits to seize property under eminent domain, and as a result is subject to the state's public records law.
"In asserting that inherently sovereign power, an essential governmental function, for a claimed public purpose, defendant BBP is functioning under color of law and as an instrumentality of the state and must be subject to the Public Records Law as recently affirmed by the Louisiana Supreme Court," said the writ.
In the referenced case, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was subject to the state open records law because it functioned as an arm of the city of New Orleans after the LSPCA entered into an agreement and was paid by the city to handle complaints about animals.
"They are assuming a state function, therefore they should be subject to the laws that the state is subject to," said Anne Rolfes, director of the Bucket Brigade, referring to the pipeline company during an announcement of the court action on Facebook Live at the state court in Baton Rouge.
"We will not allow Bayou Bridge to quietly seize hundreds of people's land for private profit with no public oversight," Rolfes said in a news release. "The entire process has taken place behind closed doors, leaving in the dark the local people who bear the risks this dangerous pipeline poses to our health, natural environment, and even our very livelihoods."
"Eminent domain is an extraordinary and controversial power, and those most often burdened frequently lack the financial means and political clout to protect their rights in the process," said CCR Senior Staff Attorney Pamela Spees, in the news release.
Spees grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, one of the communities included in the pipeline project. "This authority is all the more dangerous and troubling when it is placed in the hands of a powerful corporation that claims it should not be subjected to the same transparency requirements as state agencies exercising that authority."
Tuesday's court action is the latest in a series of lawsuits filed by environmental groups in attempting to stop the pipeline.