09/08/2010 12:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Residents Return After Well Blowout Douses Cane Fields

This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Sept. 6 edition.

An early-August accident at a newly dug oil well in Assumption Parish, Louisiana, ended when sand buried the structure two and a half weeks later. In the meantime, residents of the town of Paincourtville sought hospital services, six homes were evacuated, cane fields were covered with emissions, and a business and a racetrack were shut, parish officials said. Parts of two highways were closed. Millions of dollars in damages are being tallied now, and two class-action suits have been filed.

While the Paincourtville cleanup progressed, an offshore oil platform owned by Mariner Energy caught fire Thursday, sending workers for hospital checkups and raising questions about whether April's BP explosion was a rare event--as the oil and industry has argued.

When asked if the Paincourtville site will be used for future production, officers of well-operator Mantle Oil & Gas, LLC in Texas and Australia-based Grand Gulf Energy Ltd.--the well's major stake holder--refrained from answering. But in an Aug. 26 statement, Grand Gulf said plans are to use the relief well as a producer.

Assumption Parish Sheriff Michael Waguespack said last week "they're digging a relief well, have completed over 3,000 feet of it, and should be down 7,000 feet in two to three weeks." He explained that the original "well bridged as sand collapsed into it, stopping the outflow of oil on Aug. 24. Before that, land held by one owner and worked by four to five cane growers was affected." But the site seems secure now after a blowout preventer was placed on the original well in late August, he said.

As a result of the inland-well accident, "25 people sought medical attention, mostly for complaints like nausea, dizziness and respiratory ailments that subsided when they were removed from the site," according to Olivia Watkins, spokeswoman for the state's Dept. of Health and Hospitals.

As for the residents that were evacuated, John Boudreaux, director of the Assumption Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said "Mantle Oil made arrangements for them to stay in nearby hotels, and all evacuees returned home by late August."

Tim Beckstrom, spokesman for the Louisiana Dept. of Environmental Quality said "prior to the capping of the well, DEQ's Mobile Air Monitoring Lab was at the site taking air samples," and checking thirteen air-monitoring stations along the site's one-mile perimeter. "Based on air monitoring, there were no indications of any risks to human health. DEQ is working with other state agencies to ensure that cleanup efforts are protective of human health and the environment. "

Authorities hurried to protect sources of water in the area. Waguespack said "one of our biggest concerns has been preventing the runoff of oil mixed with salt and sand into local canals and Lake Verrett. That mixture can kill marsh vegetation and freshwater fish."

Boudreaux said earthen dikes were erected to keep oil and brine water from running into swamps and the lake. Louisiana State University AgCenter cane specialist Kenneth Gravois, based at the Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel, visited the site, and said "much of the contaminated water is being removed and handled according to state environmental standards." Area drinking water was not affected, the state Dept. of Health and Hospitals said.

The August 11 accident resulted from "the apparent failure of the blow-out preventers," Grand Gulf said in a statement.

The well shot plumes of oil, gas and clouds of sand and water hundreds of feet into the air. The geysers subsided after a period of days, but the well continued to spew at slower rates for over two weeks. Industry estimates are that over 3,000 barrels of oil, and many millions of cubic feet of both natural gas and brine escaped from the well.

In a late-August statement, however, Mantle said "the cause of the blowout has not been determined and no calculation of the amount of hydrocarbons, water and sand blown from the well has been made." Mantle also said "there have been no reports of injury resulting from the blowout, and property damage is confined to the blowout site and the cane field surrounding the well location."

Most if not all, of the costs from well-control operations in Paincourtville will be covered by insurance held by Grand Gulf and Mantle, Grand Gulf said in late August.

Boudreax said it could take as long as six months to clean up the area around the well site. But, he said, "some of the growers surrounding the site are seeing good signs from their cane" so farmland recovery may take less time than was initially thought. "The Department of Agriculture will be testing soil and tissue from cane to determine harvesting this year."

Gravois at LSU AgCenter said a multi-agency response is under way. "Initial indications are that 500 to 1,000 acres of cane were affected." State agencies, along with Mantle and its environmental consultants are assessing the situation. He said "meetings are taking place to develop a mitigation plan, including a survey to determine the number of acres that can be planted in nearby fallow fields."
And Gravois said "it is my understanding that the growers and land owners will receive compensation for losses."

Taxpayers might be surprised at how many state resources an oil accident consumes--money that could be spent on crumbing bridges, other infrastructure or education.

Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the state Dept. of Natural Resources, said "the Louisiana Commissioner of Conservation will ask operator Mantel to report on its plan for cleanup of the well site soon through a compliance order that will be issued shortly." That plan, he said, "will be reviewed by the Office of Conservation, and if needed, the commissioner can amend the original order or issue a new one requiring specific actions and time lines for cleanup."

Courreges continued, saying "the environmental impact of the incident is being assessed and response-monitored jointly by the Office of Conservation, the state Dept. of Environmental Quality and the state Dept. of Agriculture and Forestry, with each agency taking action based on their jurisdictions."

The state's actions and orders, Courreges said, are directed toward well-operator Mantle. "They may be responsible for cleanup costs, but which entity is held finally responsible for paying the costs may depend on other factors, such as the outcome of litigation."

Meanwhile, if you happen to see an oil geyser in the course of your day, don't stand around watching it, experts advise. Vincent Wilson, environmental sciences professor at LSU, said "fresh crude oil and natural gas contain toxic volatiles--chemicals that can cause acute toxicity if inhaled in sufficient amounts." Volatile organic compounds in fresh crude oil also contain benzene, a known carcinogen and a very toxic compound, he said.

"After a few days, most of the VOCs will have evaporated, leaving the higher-molecular-weight, hydrocarbon constituents of crude oil," Wilson said. "Many of those are still toxic, but not nearly as dangerous--unless ingested. Skin contact with weathered oil can produce dermatitis and other health problems, however," he noted.

Maureen Lichtveld, Tulane environmental health professor and associate director of the Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium, said "short-term exposures to the types of volatile organic emissions from an incident like the well accident cause nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath and other respiratory problems. As epidemiologists, we know there's a link between benzene exposure and leukemia and between asbestos and lung disease, but when humans are exposed to a mixture of chemicals, determining the impact on health becomes more difficult. Multiple factors, including existing health conditions and health disparities play a role."

In the broader picture, "it's hard to say whether Louisiana's cancer corridor is getting cleaner or dirtier, and you have to ask for whom and over what period," Lichtveld said. "Incidents happen and they are reported to and investigated by the state's DEQ and Dept. of Health and Hospitals and the U.S. EPA, the Center for Disease Control Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry."

Assumption Parish is to the west and outside of the seven-parish, cancer corridor that runs from Baton Rouge south along the Mississippi River. South Louisiana is peppered with oil and gas holdings, however, and is still reeling from the BP spill--the region's environmental colossus. Lichtveld said "this fall, scientists and federal agencies will work together to assess long-term health effects of the Gulf oil spill."