Town Says Public Bypassed on Fracking Permit

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dodged public comment rules and gave an oil company permission to frack in wetlands adjacent to the drinking water source for more than a million people, the Town of Abita Springs claims in a lawsuit.
     In a complaint filed in the New Orleans Federal Court, the town says the Corps arbitrarily granted the Helis Oil and Gas Co.’s application to frack in a wetlands directly adjacent to the Southern Hills Acquifer System which supplies fresh water to a 10-parish region from greater Baton Rouge to Tammany Parish.
     The lawsuit says the Corps did so after a private meeting with oil company representatives, and after the agency had publicly asked Helis for more information on its proposal, but got no response from the company.
     Abita Springs says the Corps also refused to reopen the comment period to let citizens voice their concerns about the project after Helis submitted more than 500 pages of documentation last month.
     The lawsuit says the document submitted by Helis included numerous statements purporting to address, for the first time, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and regulatory requirements.
     Abita Springs is located about an hour outside New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain and has a population of about 2,500.
     “Much of Abita Springs’ identity and value as a place to live, work and recreate derives from its clean environment, peaceful setting, and lack of industrial activity,” the lawsuit says.
     “Abita Springs enjoys a unique connection to the Southern Aquifer, located under the wetlands where Helis Oil proposes its project, because Abita Springs’ identity is inextricably entwined with the cleanliness and purity of the Southern Hills Aquifer water,” plaintiff says.
     Though not stated in the lawsuit, the water from Abita Springs has long been revered for its healing properties. The town of Abita Springs grew up around the springs before the turn of the last century after legend of the water’s mystic capabilities made the springs a tourist destination. It is also the home of Abita Beer.
     On April 14, 2014, public notice announced the start of the public notice and comment period for Helis Oil’s initial permit application.
     During this initial comment period, the Corps, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency requested additional information from Helis Oil regarding mandatory requirements of the Clean Water Act and implementing regulations.
     On June 19, 2014, the Corps requested that Helis Oil provide additional information and to address a concern about the numerous migration pathways through which potential contamination from the well could reach the Southern Hills Aquifer, the lawsuit says.
     The Southern Hills Aquifer is used for drinking water for more than a million people in Louisiana.
     On July 2, 2014, the Corps sent another letter to Helis requesting additional information necessary for Helis Oil “to meet its burden to overcome the presumption that alternative, non-wetland sites were available for its project,” the lawsuit says.
     As described in the court documents, the agency in its July 2 letter said: “The Corps presumes that there may be other available sites in this geographical area that would accommodate the applicant’s desired goals, for drilling into the Tuscaloosa Shale Play and that would be economically viable and environmentally less damaging.”
     “Upon information and belief, Helis Oil provided no written response to the Corps’ June 19, 2014, and July 2, 2014, requests during the Corps’ consideration of its initial application,” according to the complaint.
     On July 28, 2014, the Corps arranged for a Geological Review meeting with the United States Geological Survey regarding Helis Oil’s initial application.
     Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons asked to attend the meeting, the lawsuit says, and was denied.
     The meeting was not open to the public and information on what was discussed during the meeting has not been disclosed for public review.
     Since then, Helis has released information on the project it intends to undertake that the original site, but it has still never responded in writing the Corps’ July 2 and July 28 letters requesting more information.
     On October 14, 2014, the Corps publicly noticed Helis Oil’s revised application. The review and comment period ended November 13.
     On January 2, 2015, Helis Oil submitted over 500 pages of documentation to the Corps which discussed “several issues of interest to Abita Springs and the general public,” including transcript of testimony held before the Natural Resources Department, a fluid migration study purporting to demonstrate how far toxic chemicals would travel through the Southern Hills Aquifer if they leaked through the well and three additional statements from Helis Oil consultants purporting to meet Helis Oil’s burden to establish that no alternatives to its proposed site exist, the lawsuit says.
     The public didn’t have a chance to comment on this document, Abita Spring’s lawsuit says, because it was submitted after the comment period ended.
     On January 14, 2015, Abita Springs requested the Corp reopen the comment period, but this request was denied.
     In denying Abita Spring’s request, the Corps’ said only that a public hearing “is not necessary for this project as currently proposed,” the lawsuit says.
     Abita Springs seeks damages from the Corps for abuse of discretion and failure to hold a public hearing, failure to make required findings in denying a public hearing, failure to hold a sufficient notice and comment period and failure of applicant to address all reasonably related activities.
     The lawsuit was filed by Jay Friedman and Lisa Jordan, both of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic in New Orleans.

%d bloggers like this: