By Emilie Karrick Surrusco
Jody Meche and his family have harvested crawfish from Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin for generations. When he set his first trap in the 1980s, he hauled in an abundant catch. These days, his traps come back full of dead crawfish.
Meche holds the oil and gas industry responsible for the steady destruction of a way of life that depends on the bounty of our nation's largest river swamp. The industry dodged regulations and built hundreds of pipelines throughout the basin. The construction left behind mounds of dirt—known as spoil banks—that have systematically destroyed the water quality and created so much sediment that crawfish and other living organisms suffocate.
Energy Transfer Partners, a company with a dismal record of protecting the environment, aims to build a new 162-mile pipeline across the basin to connect its controversial Dakota Access pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico. Earthjustice attorneys are representing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their legal challenges against that pipeline.
Meche and others are speaking out against the proposed Bayou Bridge pipeline, which would cross 700 bodies of water and impact 600 acres of wetlands. The Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit on Dec. 14 for the project. Earthjustice plans to challenge that decision. Meche shared his thoughts as the fight to protect the Atchafalaya Basin from the Bayou Bridge pipeline headed toward a new stage.
What is special about the Atchafalaya Basin?
"The Atchafalaya Basin is unique to the whole world. There's nowhere else like it. It's home to hundreds of species of migratory birds—there's bald eagles, so many bald eagles—and alligators, fish and so much more. It provides subsistence for the Cajun people.
"We've made our living from the basin for over a century, it gives us food for our families. For me, it's my way of life. It's where I grew up. It's what I know, it's what I've learned."
How has oil and gas development affected the basin?
"They created these pipeline right-of-ways, and instead of flattening out the dirt they excavated, they left it. They interrupted the water flow. And every year, the ecosystem has been on the decline. The crawfish are to the point where they won't live in our crawfish traps unless we let the traps stick out above the top of the water so they can come up for air. The water quality is so poor they can't get enough oxygen out of the water.
"When I first started fishing, you hardly had any problems with crawfish dying. You could set your traps on the bottom, five or six feet in the water, and the crawfish would all be alive.
"Now you go back, and all the crawfish are dead underwater."
How could additional oil and gas development in the basin affect the region's ability to fight flooding and other types of damage during hurricane season?
"It's unbelievable how much these pipelines have caused the bottom to fill up with sand. The bottom used to be below sea level in a lot of areas, and now it's 20 to 30 feet above sea level. In the springtime when you see all these rivers and all these houses flooding all up and down the Mississippi Valley, the Ohio River Valley, the basin is supposed to be able to receive a lot of that water and flow it through to the Gulf of Mexico. They know it can't—so they flirt with disaster every year."
Why don't you trust Energy Transfer Partners to do the right thing?
"It would be a hell of a feat to gain my trust. These companies don't hold up to their end of the bargain. They don't abide by the permits. They don't abide by the regulations. And nobody has held them accountable."
"I'm not opposed to oil and gas. We have a need—we have a tremendous dependence. But with the amount of money these companies make, there's no excuse for them to destroy our Earth the way they have. They have to go back and fix the problems they've caused for the environment."
"I've worked in the oil and gas industry. I know they can do a better job than the way it's been done."
Why did you reach out to Earthjustice for help on this issue?
"It seemed like our only hope. We've tried everything. We've met with governors, we've met with legislators, we've met with colonels with the Army Corps of Engineers, with state agencies, federal agencies—we've met with everybody. We can't hold these people accountable. The state of Louisiana is so controlled by the oil and gas industry, you can't get anything done. It seemed like we had to go outside the state, to someone who cares about our natural world."
What keeps you going in this fight?
"My love for the world I live in. I believe it's my God that's guiding me. He's working through human beings—I'm one of the human beings that he's working through so I can't give up the fight.
"Our natural resources out there, our natural environment and our ecosystems, I've got to give a voice to them and try to scream foul for what has taken place over so many decades. They can't speak for themselves. They can't defend themselves. The trees and the fish and the water and the animals and the birds, somebody has to speak for them."
Around the world, a powerful shift away from fossil fuels toward clean energy is underway—but change won't come fast enough without a concerted fight.
Alongside communities in states across the country, Earthjustice attorneys are fighting pipelines like Bayou Bridge, export terminals and other major fossil fuel infrastructure projects that would seek to lock us into a fossil fuel-fired future.
The challenges we face are not insurmountable. The path to a clean energy transformation is rapidly emerging—and we can all play a role in clearing that path in time to limit temperature rise and guarantee our future. Stay updated on this fight.