Exclusive: Protesters take to the sky to fight Bayou Bridge Pipeline

UPDATE: Three protesters were arrested in the Basin this week, and one of the sky pods was destroyed as the pipeline construction continued. 

PIGEON, La. -   They've chained themselves to backhoe excavators and been handcuffed and arrested. Now, the fight to stop the Bayou Bridge oil pipeline -- and protect a national wildlife refuge -- is taking place 35 feet in the air.

The Atchafalaya Basin is the largest river swamp in the country, larger than the Florida Everglades, with more than one million acres of cypress trees, alligators, snowy egrets, and wild bushes of white hibiscus. The Basin is home to more than 200 species of birds and fish, and it is the nation's largest nesting area for bald eagles.

But environmental activists, like Cherri Foytlin of Rayne, say the pipeline construction that's cutting across the southern end of the Basin will tear apart its ecosystem.  Foytlin calls the pipeline a "black snake with fangs on both ends."

That's because Bayou Bridge is the final link in a network of pipelines that starts near the Canadian border with the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

Native American protests against that pipeline in Nouth Dakota two years ago briefly stopped the construction and in 2016 President Barack Obama ordered a halt for an environmental review.  The next year, President Donald Trump gave it a green light .

The Dakota Access Pipeline and Bayou Bridge, plus the pipelines that connect them, are owned by the same company, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP). And ETP has both federal and state support.

On Aug. 1, the Louisiana Legislature increased the criminal charge for trespassing from a misdemeanor to a felony when it occurs on property the state deems vital to "critical infrastructure."

In the state's view, that infrastructure includes the land around oil pipelines, giving ETP a big win against protesters who had routinely entered the Bayou Bridge construction site.  A misdemeanor trespassing charge might have meant a trip to jail and a summons, but a felony could mean time in prison.

Energy Transfer Partners maintains that it is doing everything possible to protect and restore the environment disrupted by the pipeline's construction.

But in the Atchafalaya Basin, environmentalists point to the way the construction pulverizes cypress trees in the pipeline's path, turning them into sawdust in less than sixty seconds. They also worry about the potential for oil leaks when the pipeline is complete and capable of carrying hundreds of thousands of gallons a day through the swamp.

The protesters in the Basin are members of a grassroots group called Leau Est La Vie (water is life), led by Foytlin.  It's a small, fluctuating group of about a dozen activists who call themselves "water protectors."

For weeks, the water protectors have been camping in a secret location near the pipeline construction, harrying ETP with their protest of the pipeline's steady progress. They say they do it for the rest of us, fighting for our clean air and water.

"When I'm on my dying days," says Foytlin, "I can say I actually stood for something ...  It's not about stopping a pipeline; it's about starting a community and a way of life that gives us a chance for the future."

But the stakes are much higher now that a footstep on ETP property could mean a felony conviction. So the water protectors have taken the fight more than three stories off the ground, and recently they gave WGNO-TV exclusive access to their camp to see the new tactic in their resistance.

They've erected platforms, called "sky pods" that are suspended between the cypress trees.  Using ropes and pulleys, the water protectors are able to hoist themselves onto the platforms and stay there, for hours or more at a time.

The platforms are not much wider than a typical office cubicle -- simple wooden planks surrounded by tent material to block the sun and keep out the rain. But the key to this type of protest is the word "between."

While the oil company may own the trees in the pipeline's path, the space between the trees is "free."  That means that a water protector sitting in a sky pod is not, technically, trespassing.  It's also meant as a challenge to ETP:  Cut down the trees and the platform will fall, possibly killing whoever is on it.

But the water protectors are undaunted. Foytlin says the oil company is more afraid of them than they are of the company.

"(ETP knows) there are people here who are willing to suffer the mosquitoes and the heat, and that terrifies (ETP)," says Foytlin, "because how many people do you know who are willing to save something for the rest of the nation?"

"Those poor suckers," Foytlin says of ETP, "all they care about is putting money in their pockets.  But what we're here for is a moral obligation, and no amount of money or people coming after us will stop that because it is a righteous cause."