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Update: EMER18-003, According to DNR

“We still don’t know where it’s coming from.” — Patrick Courreges, DNR spokesman

When the Oilfield Site Restoration Commission, the state’s board in charge of “orphan wells”, held their quarterly meeting Thursday, October 18, they gave scant attention to what may be one of the state’s larger environmental disasters.

Known variously in the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources files as “Smyrna Area 9, DeSoto Parish” or, more commonly, “EMER18-003”, the official update on the gas and water emergency given to the OSR board was brief.

“18-003 is ongoing. The information in your packets shows the cost-to-date is $1.8-million, but we’ve received some new invoices. The total is now $2.4-million. Though this started off as one well, it’s become a fairly large investigation. At present, we are looking at three other wells to the east of the original problem.”

The six members of the ten-person OSR Commission in attendance – DNR Secretary Thomas Harris, Don Briggs and Steve Maley of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, Tyler Gray of the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, Cynthia Dupree of the Louisiana Land Association, and Barney Callahan of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation – let it go at that. They were far more interested in the subsequent presentation on a new technology for bringing low-yield wells back into production, extending that 15-minute briefing into an hour-long question-and-answer session.

On the other hand, I had numerous questions about recent results of water testing in the nine square mile “area of concern”, and beyond. DNR Communications Director Patrick Courreges was delegated to provide me with answers.

“I understand Indigo Minerals went in over Labor Day, uncapped the Mason and Hanson wells, and sampled the wells’ water. Testing showed high levels of benzene, is that correct?”

“Yes,” Courreges replied. “They found 106 parts-per-billion of benzene in one well, and 30 parts-per-billion in the other.”

“And the legal limit for drinking water is…?”

“Five parts-per-billion.”

“So it is confirmed? The Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer is ‘charged’ with gas?”

“That’s correct.”

“And what are you doing about it?”

“We still don’t know where it’s coming from,” Courreges confessed, “So we’ve asked all our operators in this nine-square-mile section of the Bethany-Longstreet field to sample every drinking water well and rig-supply well they can locate, and to also sample every gas well they operate – their active wells.

“We’re also asking them to report any irregularities in their noise logs, cement bond logs and gamma logs,” he said.

“What do those tell you?” I inquired.

“The water flowing down into the well, and the gas it’s pushing up and out should make steady sounds, and we track those. Any dropoff of the decibel levels could indicate a leak. Likewise, the concrete casings that encircle the metal well bores vibrate as everything flows. Because these wells go so deep, the concrete casings get concentrically narrower, and where one that’s wider is joined to a narrower one, there’s a cement bond that seals them together. That’s a potential location for a crack and a leak, so well operators are required to monitor those vibrations for sudden variations.

“Gamma logs measure the radiation that naturally occurs throughout the deeper layers of the earth. Any spike or drop in a well’s gamma rays is an indication of a leak in – or out,” Courreges explained. “All of those should help us determine which well is the source of the problem.”

“Additionally, we’re asking all our well operators to tell us about any plugged and abandoned gas wells they find, so we can declare those to be “orphaned”, legally accessing and opening them to sample the gas in them.

“There are four layers of gas-bearing geology below the Carrizo -Wilcox aquifer in DeSoto Parish. Well, five,” Courreges added, “but we’re not drilling in the Smackover – yet. There are wells in the Rodessa, Hosston, Cotton Valley, and Haynesville formations, and gas from each formation has different characteristics and different chemical signatures. We’re trying to match the gas in the water wells and aquifer with the gas from a well into one of these formations.”

“At one time, y’all stated it was from the Hosston formation. You’re not so sure now?”

“No, as you pointed out in one of your articles, the geologist who analyzed that gas said it was ‘most like’ Hosston gas, but far from identical,” Courreges acknowledged.

“And at that time, no Haynesville Shale gas was offered for comparison, right? Are you finally considering the possibility this could be coming from fracking the Haynesville?”

“Yeah, we are,” he said, hanging his head a bit. “We’re looking at every possibility. As you heard in the meeting, we’ve expanded our investigation east, looking more closely at three other wells.”

“Are these wells outside the 9-section area?” I asked.

“No, they’re still inside it, in section 27.”

There are 17 gas wells in that single mile-square section. Three are plugged and abandoned; three are dry and plugged; four are listed as “permit expired”; one was declared “orphaned” in February this year; three are shut-in, yet are also categorized as “productive, with future utitlity”; and three are active producing wells. They’re drilled into the Rodessa, Hosston, Cotton Valley and Haynesville formations.

There are also seven water wells in that section. Four are rig supply wells, one is a private drinking water well, one is agricultural water, and one is the Keatchie Water Company’s Smyrna well, a public drinking water supply well.

I asked about DNR coordination with the other state and federal agencies overseeing drinking water. Courreges acknowledged there hadn’t been much intentional co-ordination, so I suggested – at the very least – they alert DEQ, and make as many of the water well test results available to them as possible, since their triennial sampling and testing of the aquifer is scheduled to be done before then end of this calendar year.

I also asked if they had alerted Texas, since the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer flows beneath 66 or our neighboring state’s counties.

“They have their own problems with the aquifer,” Courreges replied. “That’s a mess over there, with battles over excessive drawdowns, and so forth.”

In other words, let’s keep this problem to ourselves for now. Nevermind that we’re not actively investigating how far the plume of contamination spreads. Instead, DNR is narrowly focused on simply seeking the source within a finite area, just trying to find the avenue of gas migration into the aquifer.

Courreges and I discussed the possibilities of a hitherto unknown fault, or even micro-faults, that might be exacerbated by the pressures of fracking. He said that since Louisiana has never been earthquake-prone, there’s been no real research into fault lines. As for the idea that faults could form due to fracking pressures, he holds to the U.S. Geological Survey conclusion that so-called “frack quakes” result from pumping fracking wastewater into deep injection wells, rather than being caused by the pressures created when shale miles underground is blasted apart to release its encapsulated gas.

However, in Lancashire, England, where fracking operations restarted last week after a seven-year hiatus, the British Geological Survey reported Monday they’ve registered five temblors in the first three days of renewed fracking near Blackpool. Fracking there had been halted in 2011, due to earthquakes.

“We just don’t have those earthquake problems here in Louisiana, like they do in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Oklahoma,” Courreges insisted, “because we don’t do the kinds of injection wells that cause them.”

Indeed?

DNR’s Sonris website (comprehensive database listing wells, operators, etc.) shows there are 41 permitted injection wells in DeSoto Parish, with 23 of those permitted during the past three years. None are in the “area of investigation”, but several are within five miles’ proximity to it, including one due east. That particular injection well, #174049, is the deepest injection well listed within the parish. A former Hosston gas well, it was converted to a “saltwater disposal well” in 2010, and just this past July, its operator, Amplify Energy Operating, LLC, was fined and assessed civil penalties for production audit discrepancies. Then last month, their authorization to operate was suspended for “injection and mining violation.” Certainly, this potential link to the aquifer contamination warrants further investigation, and comparisons of the chemical signatures from this well’s contents to the chemical signatures of water and gases from wells in the affected area.

Most importantly, I asked Courreges what-all they were doing to inform the residents of the emergency, and the potential hazards of drinking their well water, breathing their air, and –considering the season — burning their autumn leaves.

“We’ve been keeping the property owners in the affected area informed, as needed,” he stated.

“But what about those properties that may be occupied by tenants? And what about residents nearby – just outside this limited nine-square mile area?” I asked. “Why haven’t you held a single public meeting to inform the people of DeSoto Parish what is going on?”

“They haven’t asked for one,” the DNR spokesman replied.

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