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Fracking plan creates water worries in St. Tammany

12th May 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

St. Tammany Councilman Jacob Groby, III says drinking water could be threatened if Helis Oil & Gas Co., LLC is allowed to hydraulically fracture 960 acres of timber land near Mandeville and Abita Springs. Helis wants to drill down 13,000 feet through the Southern Hills aquifer, the parish’s chief water source. Last week, Parish President Pat Brister and Parish Council Chairman Reid Falconer pressured Helis to ask the state’s Department of Natural Resources to delay a May 13 hearing on the proposed well’s boundaries.

Meanwhile, Helis claims its operations will be safe, and said in a recent public statement that its prospective well is in “an extremely rural area” and will be enclosed by a 2 ½ foot berm.

The site is in the far east of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale deposit, extending from east Texas through central Louisiana to the top of the Pelican State’s boot and southwestern Mississippi. A handful of companies are fracking St. Helena, the Felicianas and other Louisiana parishes northwest of St. Tammany now, along with Wilkinsin and Amite Counties in Mississippi. Helis is the fist firm to propose fracking in St. Tammany but residents are on the lookout for other operators. Groby said an oil and gas company acquired land south of Madisonville last summer though he’s heard nothing about its plans.

Fracking entails drilling down many thousands of feet and then working horizontally. The fracture is filled with water, sand or ceramic material, and chemicals to create fissures. Oil and gas are extracted from those fissures. Injected water rises back to the surface over time.

“If something goes wrong in a fracking operation here, our drinking water could be compromised,” Groby said last week. “Except for facilities in Slidell, we don’t have water treatment plants in St. Tammany. It would take five years and cost millions of dollars to build one.” Groby is superintendent of water quality control in another parish—St. Bernard.

In a May 1 meeting, the Parish Council decided to hire an attorney familiar with fracking and is searching for one now. The council wants that lawyer to examine whether the parish’s responsibility to protect the health and safety of its residents can override state laws allowing fracking, Groby said. State laws prevent local authorities from prohibiting drilling authorized by Baton Rouge.

St. Tammany’s water resources differ from those in the Haynesville Shale deposit near Shreveport, where wells use water delivered from the Red River and Sabine River, chemist Wilma Subra, president of Subra Company in New Iberia, said last week. But whether land is fracked in northwest or southeast Louisiana, heavily contaminated water returns to the surface from the process, she said.

At a “unitization” hearing, initially scheduled for May 13 by the state’s Department of Natural Resources, Helis hopes the perimeters of its proposed drill unit near Mandeville will be approved. “The boundaries determine which mineral rights owners will be entitled to participate in the well’s production if it is permitted, drilled and productive,” DNR spokesman Patrick Courreges said last week. ”This isn’t a formal part of the permit application process. It simply establishes financial rights of affected landowners and mineral rights owners.”

Last Thursday, Courreges said DNR had heard that Helis told the parish it would ask for the hearing to be delayed for 30 days.

Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are reviewing applications related to the proposed Helis project, Courreges said.

Helis needs a state water quality certification, as required by Section 401of the federal Clean Water Act, along with authorization by the Army Corps. The Clean Water Act regulates the discharge of dredged or fill material into the nation’s waters and wetlands.

Scott Eustis, coastal wetland specialist with the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans, doubts that DEQ responds much to water quality concerns expressed in public comments, however. “It’s a shame because the DEQ is meant to be the state’s check on the Army Corps,” he said last week. Eustis fears that if Helis is allowed to drill its proposed site, radium, barium, chromium, lead or mercury from that process could enter nearby Cane Bayou and Bayou Lacombe. In Lafourche Parish, locating wastewater pits in a floodplain turned Golden Meadow into a shallow bay, Eustis noted. And the same practice has harmed parts of Plaquemines and Jefferson Parish.

Darryl Malek-Wiley, environmental justice organizer with Sierra Club’s Louisiana Chapter, said community concerns about Helis include the prospect of drilling down through a series of aquifers and questions about where the company would get needed water. He wonders whether it would come from the aquifers or other sources. Malek-Wiley noted that in this nation’s fracking history, wells have been known to leak contaminants into groundwater. And he said, based on interest in Haynesville and other fracking areas where drillers have rushed in, St. Tammany residents need to consider cumulative impacts, not just individual cases.

Hays Town, president of Baton Rouge Citizens to Save Our Water, said St. Tammany residents should review reports linking recent earthquakes in in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Colorado and Ohio to fracking.

Lacombe resident Jeanne Hutchison, secretary and treasurer of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, last week said the proposed Helis well is two miles from the new Lakeshore High School, which is on LA 1088, and about four miles from Abita Springs, where the Abita Brewery uses local spring water. At a heavily attended May 1 public meeting, held by Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons, he expressed opposition to the Helis well, she noted. And last week, Mandeville Mayor Donald Villere said he’s against drilling the well.

Fracking in St. Tammany would place considerable demands on its infrastructure. “Poor quality roads, the narrow passage of roadways in rural areas, and increased traffic associated with fracking will likely result in fatalities,” landsman Dan Collins in Baton Rouge warned last week.

Collins expects the state to approve drilling plans by Helis despite public opposition. “My bet is Helis and others will get their permits,” he said: “You can bet the oil and gas lobbyists’ last dollar they’ll get their permits.”

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the GreenARMY, headed by retired Lt. General Russel Honore, staged a protest last Thursday against Helis in the 200 block of St. Charles, where both Helis and Baker Donelson have offices.

TMS drilling in Louisiana and Mississippi dates to the 1970s, with occasional efforts before that. The deposit is estimated to contain 7 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Tuscaloosa rock is softer and more clay-like than many other shales, according to geologists. Instead of cracking as intended, it can absorb injected fluids, adding to environmental worries about those wells. And the clayish rock can close the cracks that drillers opened, increasing their costs.

This article originally published in the May 12, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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