NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge recently upheld the controversial fracking permit that grants exploratory oil and gas drilling in the wetlands near Abita Springs in the St. Tammany Parish.
The Army Corps of Engineers originally approved the permit on June 8, 2015, giving the Helis Oil & Gas Company permission to begin a fracking project in the wetlands. The neighboring town of Abita Springs has filed three lawsuits in two years against the project, garnering citizen support along the way as they expressed concerns to the safety of the water supply and the ecosystem of the surrounding environment.
“Any activity in a wetland that disturbs the vegetation and soil stability and aquatic environment can be damaging to the ecosystem," Harold Leggett, senior manager and regulatory director at Resource and Environmental Solutions, recently told the Louisiana Record. "An environmental impact review and mitigation plan is required prior to the initiation of most activities in wetlands. Measures are often required to minimize or eliminate serious impacts to the wetland ecosystem,”
Abita Springs alleges in the federal lawsuit that all plans, environmental or otherwise, were kept between the Army Corps and Helis. When the town filed suit in Feb. 2015, Abita Springs averred that their request for a public meeting on the matter was denied and accused the Corps of discussing the plans with Helis in a private meeting.
Lisa Lavie Jordan of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic represented Abita Springs in the suit and argued that the Corps was obligated to consider other locations for fracking.
During the December hearing, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier heard attorneys’ arguments on Dec. 2, 2015, but rejected the claim due to what he called a lack of merit. He reportedly requested the plaintiff suggest other drilling sites, but received no specific responses. Barbier also maintained that the corps was not required to open up to a public discussion according to federal law. He clarified that the public notice was sufficient to allow citizens to comment.
The site where Helis plans to drill is adjacent to the Southern Hills Aquifer System, which supplies water to 10 parishes in Louisiana that range from Greater Baton Rouge to the St. Tammany Parish. Barbier said Helis countered the accusations of presumptive drilling by providing clear evidence that there were no other locations in the state that did not involve wetlands. They plan to minimize the area of wetlands affected by the fracking.
“Impacts from oil and gas exploration are greatest during the drilling phase when drilling and support equipment is deployed," Leggett said. "Site impacts are greatly reduced following completion of the well and installation of the collection/gathering system.
“EPA recently published a report on the impact of fracking based on available data," Leggett said. "The EPA report did not find significant environmental issues resulting from the use of fracking technology."
The town has not made a decision to appeal yet, but concern for the wetlands remains on the minds of Abita Springs residents.