Swamp tale: A landman’s long-running environmental whistleblower suit against the state speaks to larger issues about conflict, controversy and trust in the Atchafalaya Basin
I was told to meet at Dale's Trading Post in Plaquemines, Louisiana. I was told that we needed photos of a "swamp tour" for an environmental piece by Stephanie Riegel, a formerTV news reporter, now writer who has the guts of any National Geographic adventurer as I would soon learn. I arrived first at Dale's, a tiny gas station with a couple of goats grazing nearby. Stephanie was close behind, bundled up in many layers as she exited her vehicle. She walked up to three people waiting for us with a tiny motorboat on a trailer. I followed behind and she introduced me: two land men and a naturalist. "We're going to follow them to the launch." I rode with Stephanie and soon pulled up on the gravel lot where we would depart.
The guys launched the tiny boat into the Atchafalaya. I expected this excursion to involve one of those large fan boats, you know, for swamp tours. Stephanie walked ahead getting a head start with the interview and without any hesitation, stepped into the boat- I wasn't as sure as she was and one of the guys extended his hand to help me in. I settled into my seat- the edge of the narrow boat just inches above the water. We started the journey with a cold windy blast to the face. It was late January and fortunately a very sunny day. We felt like ants as we passed large cargo ships parked on the river's edge.
We stopped almost immediately when our guide, Dean Wilson, pointed out the first pipeline. He looked to me as my cue to begin photographing. I still wasn't fully aware of what we were doing there at this point. Then we entered the swamp corridor. I was informed that our presence off the river in these channels was trespassing as the land was privately owned. We could be arrested. We continued on. This was my first taste of true investigative journalism. As someone with an anxiety disorder, this may not have been the most ideal placement for me. Every time the boat would get stuck or drag on the bottom of the tiny grassed canal I just knew that we would be stranded and surely never be found. At the same time, I could tell that Dean had been down these channels countless times- he knew how to navigate them and knew how to get around this land.
As we moved along, every tree was now posted with "NO TRESPASSING" signs. Dean pointed out the signs of sickness in every cypress tree, even stopping the tour at one point to free one that was being strangled by a fishing line: a man who deeply loves these trees and this land. A large issue with the pipelines is that the drilling is killing the trees and disrupting the entire ecosystem affecting animals and the people who live on these waters alike. Just thinking of bald eagles, we counted over twenty that day of all ages. I wondered how they will be affected by this in the long term. The issues surrounding the resources of the Louisiana wetlands seem very politically entrenched. The journey became very personal for me- I've always lived on waters like the Atchafalaya growing up in St.Bernard Parish, 10 minutes from the French Quarter, a little town surrounded by water- pulling in crab traps before I was even 5 years old. My father was a victim of the BP oil spill. He had just started his shrimping business a year prior. I believe this fight is personal to many people like myself. It was a privilege to spend the day with people who care about the environmental movement in Louisiana.
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