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Louisiana fisherman wait for help from Trump administration

Bayou crawfishermen thought President Trump would clean up their swamp but there's no help in sight.
Image: Crawfisherman ride through the Atchafalaya Basin swamp water.
Crawfisherman ride through the Atchafalaya Basin swamp water. The basin in Louisiana is the country’s largest continuous swampland, but decades of oil and gas pipeline construction have left much of the water deoxygenated or filled with sediment and spoil that blocks the natural flow of the swamp water.Vaughn Hillyard / NBC News

ATCHAFALAYA BASIN, Louisiana — The men who rely on the waters here to make a living were confident that President Donald Trump and his administration would help them clean up their swamp.

But with Trump's EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, facing a litany of ethics investigations and the administration moving to deregulate parts of the oil and gas industry, their hopes are shifting to an even higher plane.

"I put it in God’s hands," said Ben Bienvenu, a third-generation crawfisherman, from his fishing boat last week. "Nobody wants to listen. God will make them listen."

“We’re a dying breed,” said an indignant Jody Meche, a fellow fisherman, as he kneeled on the front end of his fishing boat.

“I’m the last of the breed of fishermen. It’s not productive enough for the young generation to get into.”

Lush cyprus and black willow trees canopy over these swamps. But below, Meche’s aluminum boat waded through waterways clouded by brown dirt and black soot.

Over the last 60 years, pipeline companies have torn through these waters to transport oil and gas to the Gulf Coast, turning the country’s largest continuous swamp into a dammed up version of its natural self.

Here, in the Atchafalaya Basin, crawfishermen are becoming resigned to the collapse of the ecosystem that generations before them have lived off of.

As Meche spoke, he peered out across the swamp where miles of unnatural mounds of dirt now dam the flow of water throughout the basin. Over the years, construction companies have dug into the swamp bed to place the hundreds of pipelines and flow lines into the ground — but then failed to return the dirt to its pre-dig levels below the water.

“That’s pitiful — one crawfish,” an exasperated, but also expectant, Ben Bienvenu quipped as he pulled up a five-foot cage from the water just a few hundred yards away from Meche’s boat.

“We’ve all been working these fields for over 30 years. That makes me a scientist,” said Bienvenu, expressing contempt for what he and others feel like are their unheard pleas to help salvage the basin. “We know what’s going on out here.”

About 300 crawfishermen still work on these waters. Twenty years ago, there were more than 3,000. They bemoan the lack of action by state and federal government agencies to defend the natural swampland that oil and gas companies have disrupted over the last 60 years.

“It cripples all of your fishery, all of your marine animals, your wading birds — everything suffers from what these pipelines are causing,” lamented Meche. It’s a food chain under pressure: The herons and egrets eat the blue crab, which eat the water’s clams.

Image: Jody Meche, president of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association
Jody Meche, president of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association, is the de facto spokesman for the swamp community around the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana.Vaughn Hillyard / NBC News

The Atchafalaya Basin — between Baton Rouge and New Orleans — spans a mass of land 160 miles by 26 miles. Its water flows in from the Mississippi River and heads out into the Gulf Coast.

The crawfishermen in the area estimate that as much as 80 percent of the water is now “black water,” or water that is nearly impossible for the fisheries to survive because of its stagnation and low oxygen levels.

They suggest the production of crawfish in the basin is down to just twenty percent of what it was two decades ago.

“We’d like to see the spoil banks out of here so we can get the water flowing,” Bienvenu said. He insisted “big beautiful crawfish” would have the chance to thrive again in the basin. “This is where they come from — the swamps of Louisiana.”

This winter, Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, began construction on the latest pipeline in the swamp — the Bayou Bridge Pipeline — after receiving approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

Alexis Daniel, a company spokeswoman, said in an email last fall to NBC News: “We can't speak for other pipelines, just the one we will be building and that we will build it according to all the rules and regulations of our permit, once approved.”

The company has not agreed to interview requests.

Colonel Michael Clancy, the district commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers out of New Orleans, said the government has “no legal mechanism of enforcing present day [pipeline] applicants to make them clean up other companies’ previous work.”

The commander, however, noted the toll past construction has had on the basin.

Image: The Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana
A sign states no anchoring or dredging in the Atchafalaya Basin because of the gas pipeline crossing.Vaughn Hillyard / NBC News

“I think there’s an acknowledged — at the state and federal level — there’s an acknowledged need out there,” Clancy said this week. “It’s a matter of putting a plan together that we can all agree to and then seeking the funding, be it federal or state funding, to take action.”

Meche is the de facto spokesman for the crawfishermen. He’s also the president of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association.

A month after the president's inauguration, Meche told NBC news that he thought the new president would be "bold enough to make the right changes to where we start taking care of our environment better." But now 17 months into the Trump presidency, these Trump-voting fishermen are still waiting for relief.

And Pruitt, who has veto authority over the Army Corps of Engineers on projects like oil pipelines, is mired in ethics scandals.

"Get away from all the senseless things you’re doing and spending EPA money on and come look at the Atchafalaya Basin," Meche continued. "The EPA director is supposed to see to do it that our environment is taken care of and we have something to leave to next generation."

Meche began his crawfishing career at the age of 20. His father was a crawfisherman before him, passing away at the age of 81 from a stroke while out working the waters.

“They’ve been making millions transmitting oil and gas and petroleum product through these pipelines for the last seven decades,” Meche bemoans. “And we’re crippled to the point that we’re struggling to make a living the way we’ve historically made a living in the Atchafalaya Basin.”

Jody says his two sons, 27 and 21 years old, have yet, and are unlikely, to enter the business. “They see our struggles and just don’t want to get into it,” he said in the foreground of the setting sun.

The men here largely lack extensive formal education or the financial resources to take on the oil and gas companies that have left their land depleted. The crawfishermen make, on average, around $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

The locals do have one notable name on their side — retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who oversaw the military’s relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina.

Honore, who now lives an hour away in Baton Rouge, started the environmental group GreenARMY four years ago and has remained an advocate, along with other groups like the Sierra Club, for the crawfishermen.

Image: Jody Meche speaks at Catahoula Elementary School
Jody Meche speaks at Catahoula Elementary School with other locals during a meeting over concerns about construction plans for a future oil pipeline through the surrounding waters.Vaughn Hillyard / NBC News

“What we’re saying is in order for us to agree" to new pipeline, the oil and gas companies "need to fix what happened in the past,” Honore told NBC News, saying the swamp communities are “living with the sins” of the past development.

But it’s a deal that they have still yet to strike.

A federal judge placed a temporary halt on construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline this spring amid a lawsuit by groups that included the crawfishing association. But an appeals court lifted the injunction in April, allowing construction to progress.

And last summer, the crawfishermen settled a lawsuit that they had waged over the course of 13 years. The deal, however, did not force the more than 35 oil and gas or pipeline construction companies originally named in the lawsuit to remove the spoil banks.

"We’ve already a lost of it, but we’re going to lose a heck of a lot more if something isn’t done,” Meche said. "I consider the birds and the marine animals and the fishery that is trying to get through daily routine of living life. None of them have a voice … they have no one who can go to the legislature in Louisiana or cry out at national level."