The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit on Jan. 24 on behalf of Mobile Baykeeper, challenging a permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Plains Southcap, LLC pipeline routed through the Big Creek Lake watershed. The organizations claim that the Corps’ authorization of the crude oil pipeline’s route threatens the safety of the local water supply.

The SELC/Baykeeper lawsuit, which does not name Plains as a defendant, requests that the Corps withdraw the nationwide permit verifications and require Plains Southcap, LLC to apply for and obtain an individual permit before completing construction of the pipeline. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved this pipeline in January 2013 under the nationwide permit program, a streamlined permitting process designed to approve projects with little environmental impact. 

Jon Gray, a spokesperson for Plains Southcap, said the SELC lawsuit shouldn’t hamper the company’s latest push to complete the 41-mile pipeline, designed to deliver as much as 200,000 barrels of oil per day from a storage facility in the Eight Mile area to Chevron’s Pascagoula refinery.

“We have our permit and we’ve been constructing the pipeline,” Gray said. “This does not in any way affect the condemnation of the property and completion of the project.”

Last month, Circuit Court Judge Robert Smith sided with the pipeline company after an injunction from the Mobile Area Water and Sewer Service challenged its condemnation authority and proposed route. Following that victory, all Plains needed to complete the pipeline was a land valuation and an agreement with MAWSS. A jury is expected to consider the value of the property in March. 

Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the SELC’ Birmingham office, said in a statement, “the law requires that a project of this magnitude go through a more rigorous and appropriate evaluation. A crude oil pipeline within close proximity of the drinking water supply is a major concern and must be considered by the Army Corps in its permitting process.”

The Corps’ nationwide permit process allows applicants for new pipelines to avoid more meticulous environmental analysis by recognizing a single, short-term impact to surrounding wetlands. It has little specific language involving the public drinking water supply, but does recognize that activities authorized by the permits may “adversely affect both surface water and groundwater supplies.” 

The permit goes on to say there are provisions in the Clean Water Act to challenge permits based on potential pollution and that “division and district engineers can prohibit the use of this NWP in watersheds for public water supplies, if it is in the public interest to do so.” 

Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, said about the timing of the lawsuit, “we didn’t want to file this lawsuit unless we absolutely had to. We decided to move forward after Plains’ repeated inability to meet with us and entertain options about the route.” 

Callaway said the Corps essentially granted a “general permit” for a “very simple and straightforward project” without examining the risks. 

“We intend to prove that the Corps should have never granted the permit,” she said.

The SELC was founded in 1986 as a regional nonprofit that uses law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast. They have nearly 60 legal and policy experts representing more than 200 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation and land use.