NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A Louisiana appeal court heard arguments Wednesday on a lawsuit challenging state laws that let oil pipeline operators take private land for construction.
The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles could take weeks or months to decide the case involving the 162-mile-long (260-kilometer) Bayou Bridge Pipeline, attorney Pamela Spees of the Center for Constitutional Rights said after the hearing.
The pipeline began operating in March.
"What a lot of people don't realize is that oil companies have been granted power of eminent domain. ... They don't have to go through the courts" to take private property for pipelines in Louisiana, Spees said in a news conference livestreamed by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental nonprofit.
The Center for Constitutional Rights represents three owners of land in St. Martin Parish.
Attorneys for Energy Transport Partners, the partnership which built the pipeline, said in their brief that pipeline opponents had failed to come up with any previous federal or state court rulings to back up their contention that the law is unconstitutional.
But the landowners also argue that Judge Keith Comeaux made errors before ruling in May that Energy Transport Partners trespassed on the land, but that construction was legal.
Energy Transport Partners released a brief statement Tuesday saying Wednesday's hearing was part of the eminent domain process and the pipeline "has been safely operating since March of 2019."
Siblings Katherine and Peter Aaslestad and Theda Larson Wright, who is not related to the Aaslestads, are among nearly 900 owners of the 38-acre (15-hectare) tract in St. Martin Parish, pipeline attorneys said. Comeaux awarded them $150 each, finding that the land was seized for a legitimate public purpose and was of little value to the three out-of-state owners.
"As a human, it's really important to me that the wetlands are preserved," Katherine Aaslestad said during the news conference. She said she grew up in Louisiana, though she now teaches history at West Virginia University.
Aaslestad said the tract is in the middle of the Atchafalaya Basin, the nation's largest river swamp. "The fact that pipelines were laid in this precious and crucially important area" before the company had legal rights to it is outrageous, she said.
"And I don't see any public purpose for eminent domain for private gain," she said.
The appeal court should note "that the company knowingly, willfully, trespassed against hundreds of landowners who co-owned the property at issue," wrote the landowners' attorneys, who include Bill Quigley, a Loyola University New Orleans law professor.
The landowners also said the company and trial judge "suggest that there is no problem with the delegation of Louisiana's eminent domain power to private oil pipeline companies because it has been this way for a long time. ... History is shot through with examples of unjust and ill-conceived laws that existed for long stretches of time before they were undone."