Cherri Foytlin, a water protector of Din’e and Cherokee heritage from Louisiana, likes to tell a story about going to jail in Texas.
In October 2018, Foytlin traveled to Dallas to protest an Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) shareholders meeting. ETP is the primary owner of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline (BBP), the final stretch of the infamous Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
Outside the Hilton hotel where the meeting took place, activists from a variety of climate justice groups condemned the BBP via bullhorn. Others were inside chanting, singing and holding up a banner that read, “Caution: Oil Pipelines Leak.” Both groups made a point to call out Kelcy Warren, the CEO of ETP, by name.
Foytlin placed herself in the actual meeting room. A jumpy livestream that eventually goes black shows protesters scattered among a group of mostly White male attendees who sit uncomfortably in their seats, some folding their arms protectively across their chests. After security removes an elderly woman protester from the room, Foytlin makes an impromptu speech about the dangers of oil pipelines. “They’re going to act like they’re the innocent ones, but they’re not,” she says of ETP executives.
Eventually Foytlin is handcuffed and she shouts, “We are First Nation! We are First Nation! Not today, colonizer! Not today!” More quietly, she tells the people arresting her, “I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t have to.”
This is how Foytlin, a divorced mother of six and a former journalist, landed in jail with an intake nurse who asked if she had any chronic health conditions.
“Yeah, I suffer from long-term colonization,” she recalls telling the nurse.
“Colon…what?” the nurse repeated, clearly trying to understand the nature of the ailment.
The activist clarified: “Colonization. It’s when too many White folks crawl up your ass and won’t go away.”
Foytlin says the nurse paused for a moment before she stamped the intake form and called out, “Next!”
L’eau Est La Vie
“She didn’t even laugh or anything,” Foytlin chuckles as she tells me the story when I visit her in October at L’eau Est La Vie (Water Is Life), the Bayou Bridge Pipeline protest camp she founded in St. Martin’s Parish, Louisiana. Along with a small group of other Indigenous women, she runs the camp on land that she bought in late 2017.
Foytlin hasn’t always been so outspoken. She entered the world of climate justice activism in 2010 in response to the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Her then-husband was working in the oil industry and the disaster left an irreversible impression on her. Since then, Foytlin has served in a variety of roles in climate justice nonprofits.
Some of Foytlin’s anti-BBP work has been traditional—she’s participated in rallies, posted on social media under the hashtag #NoBayouBridge and strategized with a local coalition of Black and White climate justice activists, nature conservationists and representatives from the crawfish industry.
But what she has come to be infamous for is a series of direct actions designed to stop construction of the BBP. She and her small crew have chained themselves to equipment, engaged in tree sits and blockaded construction sites with kayaks.
For an April action, protesters donned costumes and performed an absurdist play they called “Crawfish: The Musical” for irritated workers.
According to a recruitment video posted on the L’eau Est La Vie Facebook page, this scrappy group has caused “nearly 100” work stoppages.
No, It’s Not the Next Standing Rock
Foytlin and several other L’eau Est La Vie residents are veterans of the Standing Rock water protector camps where thousands of Native Americans and allies joined together for several months in 2016 to oppose construction of the DAPL. Under the banner of Mní Wičoni, “water is life” in the Lakota language, the movement garnered countless headlines when nonviolent water protectors withstood military style onslaughts from police. A youth-led campaign using the hashtag #NoDAPL attracted celebrities such as Shailene Woodley, Mark Ruffalo and former vice president Al Gore. Some 10,000 people came to the four North Dakota camps.
Since the DAPL camps disbanded, observers have speculated about the emergence of “The Next Standing Rock.” But opposition to pipeline projects predates Standing Rock and it’s ongoing in places such as Minnesota, Oregon, British Columbia and other parts of Louisiana.
L’eau Est La Vie is almost the opposite of Standing Rock. Citing the delicate nature of the land and the risk of law enforcement surveillance, they have been much more selective about who they allow to come to the camp.
The camp itself is tiny and sits on an unremarkable patch of scrubland surrounded by fencing. Aside from the colorful signage declaring opposition to the BBP, there is little to differentiate the rural site from its neighbors. Small out buildings in various states of construction surround a large pole barn that serves as the main meeting place. Plastic outhouses and tents dot the site’s perimeter. Since water protectors’ boats were sunk during a nighttime direct action, they are confined to camp where they work on creating Foytlin’s dream of a sustainable community on the main L’eau Est La Vie land. And while outlets including Teen Vogue have reported on the struggle, most of the coverage of L’eau Est La Vie consists of video and live broadcasts that the activists create and post on the camp’s social media pages.
Outlawing Protest, Louisiana Style
To put the BBP fight into context, you need to understand the relationship between the state of Louisiana and the oil industry. Big Oil is like family in Louisiana. Regardless of its dysfunction, people defend it as they would an abusive relative.
For one, it’s a major employer. Extraction, mining, pipeline operations and oil refinement employed 44,580 people in the state at $5.3 billion in 2017, according to an economic impact study paid for by the pro-oil nonprofit Grow Louisiana Coalition. Coverage of a report by the Louisiana Chemical Association claims that the state’s chemical industry accounts for $79.7 billion in sales and $15.7 billion in household earnings.
Also, Louisiana is among a handful of states that have granted government power directly to oil, gas and mining companies to declare eminent domain over private property. “The whole state apparatus serves the oil industry,” says Anne Rolfes, director of the nonprofit climate justice group Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
In August, Louisiana went as far as to pass a law directly aimed at pipeline-related direct actions like those of Foytlin and her crew. The so-called Critical Infrastructure Protection Act makes damaging and trespassing around pipeline equipment felonies punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The Louisiana law is similar to legislation passed in Oklahoma and under consideration in other states such as Wyoming and Iowa. The language of the law is modeled on legislative drafts generated by the conservative, Koch brothers-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Foytlin and several others were violently arrested in September and charged under the new law. So far, Bo Duhé, the district attorney for the jurisdiction of St. Martin’s parish, has not prosecuted the activists for felony charge. (Duhé did not respond to my calls for comment.)
According to Foytlin, 14 of the water protectors have been fined a total of $3,000 for misdemeanor trespassing.
The Dominance of Eminent Domain
If the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is completed according to plan, it will run from Lake Charles to St. James, cutting through 11 Louisiana parishes and crossing 700 bodies of water. The Atchafalaya Basin, the largest river swamp in the United States and the largest wetland forest in North America, is also in the BBP’s path.
A group of Basin landowners have emerged as strong opponents to the pipeline. In July, several people with property interests that span 38 acres filed an injunction to stop the BBP from being built on their land. They were represented by attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper conservation group.
According to language in the lawsuit, ETP and Sunoco Logistics, who are partners in the BBP project, have some of the worst spill records in the nation. ETP, Sunoco and their subsidiaries and joint ventures reported having 527 hazardous liquids pipeline incidents from 2002 through the end of 2017. Last year, a Sunoco gas pipeline in Pennsylvania leaked several times and a section of it exploded, requiring the evacuation of people within a half-mile radius.
In their lawsuit, Atchafalaya Basin landowners accused BBP of trespassing and starting construction—including clearing trees and trenching—long before beginning a legal process to obtain the land. They say the company also continued construction while permits were under challenge.
In September, ETP agreed to suspend BBP construction on the private land, but the stoppage was short-lived. On December 6, after a three-day trial, Louisiana State District Court Judge Keith Comeaux found that BBP workers had indeed trespassed on the plaintiffs’ land. But then he allowed ETP to exercise eminent domain over the property and awarded each of the landowners just $150 for their trouble.
The landowners were furious. “This case was never about the money, but clearly the judge chose not to send BBP a message by adhering to their ridiculously low appraisal of the land,” plaintiff Peter Aaglestad said in a statement released by CCR.
Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor also involved with the case, accuses ETP of operating in bad faith from the beginning. “Energy Transfer Partners knew they didn’t have permission from the landowners or court to build on this parcel of land, but they went ahead and did it anyway and let the lawyers sort it out later,” he said during a teleconference call organized by the Louisiana Water Brigade. “It’s cheaper to do what they want than to follow the law.”
Others are more optimistic. “For any individual to attempt to hold a huge company like BBP accountable under the law is no small feat—these landowners should be commended for their courage in confronting the illegal acts of a substantial opponent and standing for what is just,” says Micha Mitchell, attorney for Athchafalaya Basinkeeper.
Welcome to Cancer Alley
The fallout from the BPP reaches far beyond its construction sites in the Atchafalaya Basin. The BPP will also have a major impact on residents of the Fifth District of St. James Parish, a mostly Black community where the pipeline will end with refineries and storage facilities in their neighborhoods.
During my October trip to the area, Travis London, a local environmental activist, takes me to Freetown, a settlement founded in 1842 by formerly enslaved Black people. When we visit another activist, Genevieve “Ms. Eve” Butler, my heart narrows at the sight of the little yellow frame house that her grandfather built. It occupies a large double lot with room for gardens and fruit trees. Butler grew up with 10 siblings in this paradise of a place once surrounded by sugarcane fields and pasturelands.
But Butler’s childhood paradise has been transformed into a toxic netherworld. The cane fields and pasturelands have been replaced by oil storage tanks, pipelines and petrochemical plants. There are a total of 15 such enterprises in St. James District 5. The garden plots on Butler’s land stand fallow. “Nothing seems to grow here anymore,” she says. “We no longer see butterflies or hear crickets.”
Freetown and other Fifth District Black neighborhoods such as Burton Lane and Chatham Town are part of Louisiana’s growing “Chemical Corridor.” The corridor runs along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and is home to at least 83 chemical plants and several petrochemical storage facilities. The plants emit a frightening cocktail of carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins into the air and water. According to reporting from CNN, the EPA found that residents are at exceptionally high risk for developing cancer from air toxins.
Locals call it Cancer Alley.
Industry began flocking to St. James Parish in 2014 when the town was rezoned from residential to industrial. “The council vote was along racial lines,” says District Five Parish Councilman Clyde Cooper, with Black members voting no and White members voting yes. Cooper also says the White majority approved both the BBP project and the opening of Formosa Plastics, a producer of ethylene, propylene, ethylene glycol and associated polymers that are used to make car casings, grocery bags, drainage pipes and antifreeze. “Most of the White council members work for the petrochemical industries and, of course, none live in the Fifth District,” Cooper says.
Butler, a breast cancer survivor, tells me that nearly every family in St. James has had a member with cancer. As I follow her to Mount Triumph Baptist Church, which has become a hub for pipeline and industry resistance, my mouth is filled with an unpleasant chemical taste. The odor of fuel and chemicals in the air is overwhelming and I have an urge to flee.
Residents have the same urge, but are trapped here by low incomes and an industry that refuses to buy out homeowners. Also, they could be trapped—literally—in the event of an industrial accident or weather-related disaster. Before the industry began installing pipes over the local levee, residents could drive over it to evacuate. Butler says that since pipeline construction began, the community has been told to shelter in place if calamity comes.
Butler, a member of a community group called Humanitarian Enterprise of Loving People (HELP), became a plaintiff in a 2017 lawsuit against the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources that demanded that the industry—including ETP—do its part to build an effective evacuation route. The plaintiffs prevailed, but Butler and London say the plan is moving ahead too slowly.
A frustrated Butler tells me that while she would not participate in L’eau Est La Vie’s style of direct action, she supports their right to protest. “I don’t break the law, but maybe direct action is another way to draw attention to our fight,” she says. “We are like the sacrificial lambs to these industries.”
In response to questions I emailed in October, ETP spokesperson Alexis Daniel wrote, “We understand that an evacuation route is something that the St. James community has been discussing for some time; long before our pipeline. The planning of evacuation routes is best left to the local emergency response department. The Bayou Bridge Pipeline does not cross the public roadway in or out of the St. James Parish community.”
Building Mistakes and Oil-Slicked Water
While BPP opponents cast the pipeline as a major threat, the truth is that Louisiana residents are deeply embedded in the petrochemical industry. That’s why Dean Wilson, a former fisherman and the executive director of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, says his group doesn’t out and out condemn the pipeline. “The oil industry is part of life here,” he says. “If we begin by directly opposing the pipeline, we will lose potential allies. I am out here trying to win the hearts and minds of all residents of the Basin, regardless of their politics.”
Wilson takes me on a boat tour of part of the Basin where the BPP will land. There is an end-of-the-world quality here. Despite the industrialization, the earth’s regenerative powers are intimately present in the air and aura of the place.
On the way to meet Wilson, I notice a parking lot with plants forcing themselves through the concrete with a barely contained fecund strength ready to subsume humankind and its mistakes. It seems impossible that humans can ever fully subdue such a place.
This is the land that Wilson is trying to protect using diplomacy. The land is why he makes regular trips to BBP construction areas to document rule violations.
It’s also how I end up in a boat in the rain. As we float along, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper outreach coordinator Monica Fischer takes pictures of what she and Wilson say are improper spoil banks. Spoil banks, I learn, are mounds of dirt excavated from what becomes the trenches that hold a pipeline. Without proper construction, the spoil banks could cut off water flow within the Basin’s swamps, effectively destroying them.
Fischer also photographs the oily sheen from diesel fuel coating the water near the construction sites. Further along, we watch a huge backhoe dig up enormous gobs of muddy bayou bottom. Wilson notes that building a pipeline during the wet season—fall and winter—is especially problematic; the heavy equipment compacts the muddy soil, compromising tree growth.
As Wilson takes us home, it starts to storm in earnest. Fischer and I huddle together under raincoats and ponchos, but we’re almost instantly soaked. Wilson seems oblivious to the driving rain. He stands hatless, staring ahead into the watery world of his home.
According to my tribe, the Ojibwe, human beings are not essential to the earth’s survival, but the earth is essential to ours. Although we may not have the power to destroy the earth, we might have the power to poison it for ourselves. During my trip, I wonder if the petrochemical industry ever questions the implications of its work.
Winona LaDuke, executive director of the Indigenous environmental group Honor the Earth, says the industry does. “They absolutely know they’re wrong and that we, water protectors and others who want to save the environment, have the moral high ground,” she says during a phone interview.
Adds Tara Houska, Honor the Earth’s national campaign director: “[ETP’s] hardline stance is almost like the industry’s last gasp of control. Oil prices haven’t been great for a long time, but they are hanging onto this entrenched mindset even in the face of growing support for renewable energy.”
Back to Direct Action
In a video posted on Facebook in October, an unidentified young woman places a U-shaped bicycle lock around her neck and fastens herself to the front gate of ETP CEO Kelcy Warren’s Dallas home.
It’s raining and a handful of water protectors stand by. Two women hold umbrellas over the young woman’s head as she sits on the wet ground. Within minutes, three police cars and several people who are either plainclothes police officers or security guards show up. They ask people to stay off Warren’s property and ask the water protectors to leave.
“Kelcy Warren might live in a mansion, but now he knows what it feels like to be trapped in his home without an evacuation route,” the young woman chained to his gate declares.
Her protest ends without an arrest.
Watching the video, I think of something that climate justice activist London told me: “People might disagree about the right way to protest the BBP pipeline, but at least the water protectors are calling public attention to what’s happening to us down here. We’re hoping people will begin to take notice.”
Mary Annette Pember is an independent journalist focusing on Native American issues. In her writing and photography she has covered subjects including the high rates of sexual assault among Native women, sex trafficking, health, impact of historical trauma on Native communities and environmental challenges on Native lands. Her work has appeared in Indian Country Today, Rewire.News, Truthout and The Washington Post, among others. Pember is an enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe tribe and currently lives in Cincinnati. Follow her work at MAPember.com.