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St. Tammany Parish Residents Worry Fracking Will Harm Their Water

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(This article is published in The Louisiana Weekly in the May 12, 2014 edition.)

St. Tammany Parish Councilman Jacob Groby, III says drinking water could be threatened if Helis Oil & Gas Co., LLC, based in New Orleans, is allowed to frack 960 acres of timberland near Mandeville and Abita Springs in southeast Louisiana. Helis wants to drill down 12,000 feet through the Southern Hills aquifer system, the parish's chief water source. Last week, Parish President Pat Brister and Parish Council Chairman Reid Falconer pressured the firm to ask for a delay in the state's May 13 hearing on the well's boundaries.

Meanwhile, Helis claims its operations will be safe, and issued a statement that its prospective well is in "an extremely rural area" and will be enclosed by a 2 1/2 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. Half a dozen 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 first firm to propose fracking in St. Tammany and residents are on the lookout for other operators. Groby said an oil and gas company acquired land south of Madisonville last summer but he's heard nothing about its plans.

Frackers drill down many thousands of feet and then work horizontally. They inject water, sand or ceramic beads, and chemicals to create subsurface fissures. Oil and gas are extracted from those fissures. The water used 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." Groby, who is superintendent of water quality control in another parish, St. Bernard, said building a treatment plant in St. Tammany would take five years and cost millions of dollars. Because the well Helis wants to drill is in his District 7 in St. Tammany, Groby has scheduled an educational meeting for the public for May 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the Castine Center in Pelican Park near Mandeville.

The Southern Hills aquifer system is the primary source of drinking water for ten parishes in southeastern Louisiana, and supplies the city of Baton Rouge, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

In a May 1 meeting, the St. Tammany Parish Council decided to hire an attorney familiar with fracking and is searching for one now. The council wants the 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, La., where wells use water delivered from the Red River and Sabine River, chemist Wilma Subra, president of Subra Company in New Iberia, La. said last week. But whether land is fracked in northwest or southeast Louisiana, heavily contaminated water from the process returns to the surface, she said.

Over 2,500 wells have been drilled in the Haynesville Shale deposit and more than 2,200 have produced dry natural gas to date. On average, 5 million gallons of fresh water are needed for each drilled frac well there. When a fracking operation begins, about 20 percent of the injected water flows back up in the first three weeks. The rest of the salty water returns to the surface over the well's life, which can be 30 years.

At an upcoming unitization hearing 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." The meeting, which was initially scheduled for 9 a.m. on May 13 at the LaSalle Building in Baton Rouge, is open to the public. "Normally, operators seeking approval of units attend these meetings," Courreges said. "Sometimes they're attended by landowners who dispute exclusion from participation in the unit."

Last Thursday, Courreges said DNR had heard that Helis told the parish it would ask for the hearing to be delayed by 30 days from May 13. "But we haven't received a formal communication from the company, and we may not until the initial hearing date," he said. "The normal procedure for a continuation is for the company's representative to request the continuance at the hearing, so that it can be announced on the record in the public hearing." The company is expected to request a postponement at the May 13 session.

Meanwhile, the state's Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last Monday extended a public comment period on the company's application for water quality certification by ten days to May 15. Helis wants to clear, grade, excavate and fill 10.55 acres to build a drilling well pad for fracking, the agencies said. The site is north of Interstate-12 and east of LA Highway 1088, and it abuts the west side of Log Cabin Rd. in St. Tammany.

Helis needs a state water quality certification, showing it will comply with Louisiana's water standards, as required by Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act.

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.

At Sierra Club's Louisiana Chapter, environmental justice organizer Darryl Malek-Wiley said community concerns about Helis include prospective drilling down through a series of aquifers and questions about whether the company would use water from the aquifers. He 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 plays where drillers have rushed in, St. Tammany residents need to consider cumulative impacts, not just individual wells.

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

Lacombe resident Jeanne Hutchison, secretary and treasurer of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, said the proposed Helis well is less than two miles from the new Lakeshore High School on LA 1088, and it's less than five miles from Abita Springs -- where the Abita Brewing Co. uses water from the Southern Hills aquifer. Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons expressed opposition to the Helis well at a heavily attended May 1 public meeting that he held, she noted. And last week, Mandeville Mayor Donald Villere said he's against drilling the well.

Ronnie Simpson, St. Tammany Parish spokesman, last week said parish officials learned of the company's plans in April and are assessing what they might mean. With dozens of defunct wells in Lake Pontchartrain and on land in the parish, drilling is hardly a new activity, he noted.

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."

Councilman Groby said the land Helis wants to drill is owned by the family of Edward Poitevent II, an attorney with Baker Donelson in New Orleans. In phone calls to Helis to ask about that last week, the receptionist said everyone was in meetings and too busy to talk. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the GreenARMY, headed by retired Lt. General Russel Honore, staged a protest against Helis in New Orleans last Thursday in the 200 block of St. Charles Ave. -- 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 seven 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 wells. And the clayish rock can close the cracks that drillers opened, increasing their costs. end

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