Sept. 10–ST. MARTINVILLE — The builders of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline agreed Monday to stay off some disputed land in St. Martin Parish, but say the decision will not hinder the effort complete work by October. Environmentalists, meanwhile, say the day’s court development could reduce repercussions for protesters arrested for demonstrating near work sites.
Bayou Bridge is designed to carry crude oil 162 miles through South Louisiana from Lake Charles to St. James. Petrochemical professionals have heralded it as a safe industrial boon, while conservation groups have fought it — largely unsuccessfully — through regulatory agencies and in court.
Recently, a St. Martin Parish landowner filed suit against the pipeline company, saying construction crews entered his land illegally. Peter Aaslestad has claim to about 38 acres along the pipeline route. The swampy, undeveloped property has been subdivided and passed down enough times that perhaps 700 people now have claim to it, said Atchafalaya Basinkeeper attorney Misha Mitchell, who is representing Aaslestad. A court document listing all the landowners sprawls across six pages of legal-sized paper.
Hundreds of the property owners may have reached deals to allow Bayou Bridge workers onto the land, but everyone must be on board before a company can start tramping around private property, Mitchell said. Bayou Bridge has sought to expropriate land under eminent domain as a utility provider and common carrier for petroleum, but a lawsuit against Aaslestad is still pending.
His team was prepared to seek a court order barring any work on the land, but in a brief appearance in district court Monday, the company simply agreed not to enter the property until the expropriation can be decided. The next court date is Nov. 27. Environmentalists say they have flown over the pipeline route on several occasions and noticed trees were being cleared from Aaselstad’s property in June and pipes were being laid as of Aug. 30, the last time they checked in. Bayou Bridge opponents hope the pending suit will frustrate construction.
“This is really a huge victory,” Louisiana Bucket Brigade director Anne Rolfes proclaimed from the courthouse steps.
The pipeline builders’ attorney, Jimmy Percy, directed questions to a company spokeswoman. The agreement to stay off the Aaslestad land “does not have any impact to our construction schedule or the timing of our project completion,” according to an email from Alexis Daniel of Energy Transfer Partners, the majority shareholder in Bayou Bridge.
One lawyer attended Monday’s proceeding to see how the suit may impact the criminal cases against the 13 people who have been arrested so far for protesting near pipeline construction sites under a new law that makes such offenses a felony. Demonstrators from L’eau Est La Vie were arrested on Aaslestad’s property, said attorney Pam Spees of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who is representing the defendants.
If the suit uncovers that Bayou Bridge and its contractors entered the property without legal permission, they may be the trespassers, Spees said. Rolfes likened the company’s “brazen and illegal” actions to walking onto any private homeowner’s property and bulldozing away.
Pipeline opponents have been especially upset that some of the arrests were conducted by state law enforcement officers moonlighting as private security officers for the pipeline company. The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, which cleared the officers for the work, does not comment on pending litigation, said spokesman Ken Pastorick. He reiterated that department officers have not worked for the pipeline for several weeks, precisely because when they were hired they were told they would not be conducting arrests.
Staff at the security company that hired the officers, Lafayette-based HUB Enterprises, directed questions to Bayou Bridge. Daniel did not respond to a question about whether contractors entered the site illegally. She has previously said that Bayou Bridge opponents have targeted construction sites to damage property, and that the company does not tolerate activity that is illegal or which could endanger construction workers.
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