A federal judge agreed Friday to suspend construction of a crude oil pipeline through a swamp in Louisiana's Cajun country, a victory for environmental groups opposed to the project.
U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick granted the groups' request for a preliminary injunction that temporarily halts pipeline construction in the environmentally fragile Atchafalaya Basin until their lawsuit over the project is resolved.
The judge's two-page order bars the company that is building the Bayou Bridge pipeline "from taking any further action on the project" pending a trial on the merits of the case. It wasn't immediately clear if the order is limited to work in the basin or applies to the entire length of the 162-mile-long (261-kilometer) pipeline from Lake Charles to St. James Parish.
No matter the scope, Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman said the ruling is a "very significant victory for the people who rely on and care about the Atchafalaya Basin."
"For too long, the oil industry has treated this place as garbage dump," he said. "Finally, it is getting the kind of protection that it deserves."
Dick said her order will "prevent further irreparable harm" from the project. She said she will issue detailed reasons for her ruling "as soon as possible."
"The judge did not issue any opinion explaining her order. Until such time as that is issued, and we can review, we will have no further comment," Alexis Daniel, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, one of the companies building the pipeline, said in an email.
Dick's ruling followed an earlier legal setback for the environmental groups. On Jan. 30, the judge had rejected their request for a temporary restraining order that would have stopped construction until a hearing earlier this month.
The groups, including Sierra Club, sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Jan. 11. The lawsuit accuses the Corps of violating the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws when it approved a permit for Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC to build the 24-inch-wide (60-centimeter-wide) pipeline.
The Corps says it completed two environmental assessments for the project before issuing the permit. The groups, however, claim the Corps didn't adequately consider the project's oil spill risks.
Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC is a joint venture of Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66. Energy Transfer Partners built the Dakota Access pipeline, a project that sparked a string of violent clashes between protesters and police in North Dakota in 2016 and 2017.
The Bayou Bridge pipeline is the last link in a pipeline network connecting the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota with Louisiana refineries and export terminals. The south Louisiana pipeline is designed to have a maximum capacity of 480,000 barrels, or roughly 20 million gallons (75 million liters), of crude a day.
Pipeline construction in the basin began last month. The basin is the nation's largest river swamp and includes roughly 880,000 acres (356,000 hectares) of forested wetlands, according to the groups' lawsuit.
Dick heard testimony earlier this month that the project is tearing down centuries-old trees, destroying animal habitats and jeopardizing fishermen's livelihoods.
"We're losing our basin," said Jody Meche, president of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West.
Company attorneys noted that the Corps' permit requires Bayou Bridge Pipeline to restore the basin's "pre-existing wetland contours and conditions" once the project is done.
The lawsuit calls it "astonishing" that the Corps issued the permit for the pipeline without conducting a full "environmental impact statement" for the project. A federal law requires agencies to prepare such a statement if a project will "significantly" affect the environment.
Company and government attorneys said the Corps' environmental assessments thoroughly and properly examined the risks and potential effects of an oil spill from the pipeline.
"Even though the Corps determined that the threat of an oil spill is low, it nonetheless analyzed impacts in the highly unlikely event that one were to occur," company lawyers wrote in a court filing.
Earthjustice attorneys filed the suit on behalf of Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Gulf Restoration Network, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West.
The groups' attorneys argued that the project's environmental harm outweighs the short-term economic impact of shutting down construction in the basin.
"Allowing construction to continue despite the irregularities in the process and damage to this irreplaceable resource would harm the public interest," they wrote.