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An Environmental Emergency in DeSoto Parish? “Perhaps. If It Makes Sense to the Operators”

Part 4 of our “F**ck This” series.

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It’s all been resolved.”

That’s the public story being told by Louisiana Department of Natural Resources staff, regarding well blowouts and water problems in a segment of DeSoto Parish. It’s what they told me – a member of the press – and according to my conversations with members of the Governor’s staff, it’s the same thing DNR has been telling them.

Yet a recent DNR document tells a different story: emergency declarations issued, emergency contract awarded, relief wells drilled, more than $1.6-million state dollars expended. And the problems continue.

The official timeline of events – according to DNR’s document – begins in July 2017, with a report of the “abandoned Hanson rig supply water well blowing gas/water/sand to atmosphere.”

That’s a description of fracking fluid, geysering out of a water well.

Other records however, indicate prior signs that something was amiss underground in this particular section of the Bethany- Longstreet gas field. Keithville Water Well Drilling was called to plug a water well in the same tract, in July 2014 – because it was “blowing gas.” And again in December 2015, the same water well company was asked – by horizontal drilling company Indigo Minerals – to plug another well with a similar problem, in the same tract.

Still, according to DNR’s timeline, it took two months from the initial report of the blowout before they issued an “emergency declaration” on the Hanson water well.

The next month, another well started exhibiting problems. The Billingsley rig supply water well, already plugged and designated “abandoned”, began bubbling around its well casing. This time, DNR didn’t wait. They issued an emergency declaration for the Billingsley site immediately, even as they were signing an Emergency Response contract with an Arkansas-based well remediation company, Elm Springs, Inc.

The entire situation now has a “code name”: Smyrna Area 9, DeSoto Parish. And it’s got a code number: EMER18-003. Additionally, GOHSEP (the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness) and DeSoto Parish OHSEP are notified.

In early November 2017, the Hanson well is plugged, but now there’s bubbling in the Hanson’s pond, and along a pipeline right-of-way that runs through that property. Gas pressure is building up in the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer, 150-200 feet below the land surface, and the remediation company “installs” (drills) four “aquifer relief wells” around both the Hanson and Billingsley sites.

In early December, they begin 24-hour flaring and monitoring of those relief wells, which will continue for six months, at an average cost of better than $60,000 per month. Ultimately, DNR would decide this approach was “unsustainable.”

In February, 2018, (according to the DNR document timeline) “surface bubbling” was detected at another water well nearby, on the Mason property. Again, DNR acts quickly to issue an emergency declaration for that site, and the remediation contractor also begins working there.

In March, DNR begins holding a series of meetings – not with the area residents and property owners, but with the gas drillers and well operators in the affected area. Each of them is issued a written “notice of caution” regarding the gas in the aquifer.

In April, bubbling activity at the Mason site is increasing, and the remediation contractor “bored four holes to relieve pressure.” In addition, test results from this site confirmed the presence of hydrogen sulfide (H2S, also known as “rotten-egg gas”, and classified by OSHA as “extremely hazardous”, since it is poisonous, corrosive and flammable).

According to the DNR timeline, shortly thereafter the contractor “finds the source of H2S (buried hay), excavates and disposes off-site.” The contractor’s itemized billing for EMER 18-003, which accompanied the DNR timeline, shows Elm Springs, Inc., “placed hay bales to contain runoff from the Mason site” on 4-17-18. Two days later, on 4-19-18, they billed $7812.50 to “dig and haul 62.5 cubic yards of soil from the Mason site.” No mention of hydrogen sulfide, and no mention of hazmat suits or respirators which would have been required in the presence of H2S. Since they detailed costs for hoses and tanks, compressors and flanges, it’s a curious omission.

They did, however, bill the state $2750 for “legal council (sic)” on June 30. Interestingly, no one with the surnames Hanson or Billingsley appears among the 50 plaintiffs for the lawsuit filed over these issues in DeSoto Parish.

The problems are not resolved, though, because the last entries on this timeline show this month, the remediation contractor is preparing both the Billingsley and Hanson sites for “re-entry”.

There is, however, a “Gas Source Investigation Action Plan” that’s been developed. Basically, it’s asking the oil and gas well operators to voluntarily investigate their facilities for fluid or gas migration into the aquifer, and take corrective action. The plan “suggests” the ways they can do this: casing pressure tests, “perhaps” noise/temperature logs, “if it makes sense to operators”.

Did anyone else notice what was conspicuously absent from all this?

Nowhere does it say that area residents or property owners have been notified of the problems.

There is no mention of a request to the Louisiana Department of Health (responsible for drinking water safety) to inspect, test or monitor the water wells in the affected area.

And there’s no indication the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has been asked to bring one of its mobile air-monitoring labs to the area, to sample and test the air for gases or chemicals.

There is precedent for avoiding obvious ways to confirm there is an ongoing problem. The most notorious incident occurred in the mid-1990s, and also involved hydrogen sulfide.

In 1994, residents of the Lafourche Parish town of Grand Bois sued Exxon and local oilfield waste disposal site Campbell Wells (now owned by U.S. Liquids) over loads of hazardous materials brought in from Alabama. Hydrogen sulfide was the most prominently mentioned effluent in the case. Yet tests ordered by state agencies tested for everything except hydrogen sulfide.

CBS national correspondent Ed Bradley asked then-Gov. Mike Foster about it in 1997.

“That should have been investigated, but this is not something a lot of people talk about in this state,” Gov. Foster said.

“Except in Grand Bois,” Bradley replied.

“Yeah, but they’ve got a nice little lawsuit going, too. Remember that,“ Foster answered.

U.S. Liquids settled with the Grand Bois residents in late 1997, but even afterward, in 2005, the company’s president William Werdenberg insisted, “The air might smell like rotten eggs, but there has been no evidence found that the disposal site has made citizens sick.”

Right. And there was no “evidence” something was horribly wrong beneath Bayou Corne, until the sinkhole opened up in 2012, ultimately swallowing 37 acres of Assumption Parish.

Yet the judge in the Bayou Corne case saw it differently. As Judge Thomas Kliebert of the 23rd Judicial District noted in his ruling on that case in January of this year, “The warning signs were present for each party; however, each party was blinded by the financial implications of their actions.”

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