Louisiana wetlands under assault again

The wetlands in Louisiana just can’t catch a break. Between 1932 and 2010, the state lost these critical marshes and swamps equal to the size of the state of Delaware, and that rate is accelerating. One of the best hopes for restoring these vanished wetlands — a lawsuit filed by the levee board in New Orleans seeking 97 big oil and gas companies to pay for a century worth of damage caused by energy exploration and production — was quashed by the Louisiana Legislature and Gov. Bobby Jindal. As I’ve written here frequently, vital marshlands up and down the Gulf Coast have now been shrinking even faster, or remain befouled by gunk, because of the damage caused by the BP oil spill more than five years ago. The disappearance of so many wetlands isn’t just a long-term catastrophe for Louisiana’s ecology, but it has stripped this heavily populated region of its last and best defense against major hurricanes like 2005′s Katrina.

These facts have begun to sink in with Louisiana’s populace, which — after decades of largely venerating oil and gas interests as providers of jobs and “the good life” — is developing a belated environmental consciousness. For more than a year, residents of St. Tammany’s Parish, which sits opposite New Orleans on the far banks of Lake Pontchartrain, have been appealing for political help and otherwise fighting back against a company called Hellis Oil and Gas and its plan to frack for oil in the midst of one of Louisiana’s most vital sources of drinking water. Unfortunately, the broad umbrella of state and federal agencies that regulate energy exploration is heavily biased toward Big Oil, and quite skilled at wearing down opposition:

The Army Corps of Engineers this week issued a permit for an oil and gas company to fill three acres of wetlands in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, where it will begin exploratory drilling — the first step towards hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The decision raised questions for local leaders and environmental advocates about how much control they have over their natural resources.

The wetlands, in the town of Abita Springs, are part of a pristine aquifer — home to Abita Brewing Company, Louisiana’s most famous beer, and the sole source of drinking water for miles around. Unsurprisingly in a town where the official seal shows a woman kneeling by the water, the proposal to start fracking has been met with community outrage. In fact, Abita Springs sued the Army Corps of Engineers over its failure to hold adequate public hearings on the issue. That suit, as well as one seeking to prevent the drilling under a land-use law, was dismissed.

Wetlands are natural buffers to the effects of climate change, including both flooding and drought. In addition, they are important to regional biodiversity and erosion control. Louisiana loses a football field’s worth of land every hour, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Part of the loss of land is due to oil and gas development.

 The Corps of Engineers, for its part, insists that it’s merely following the lead of Louisiana’s state agencies:

A spokesman for the Army Corps’ Louisiana office said the new rule did not affect its evaluation of the permit, and that the agency was following the lead of the state agencies tasked with enforcing EPA standards.

“Some of the impacts to certain attributes of the environment — ground water, water quality — there are other agencies that have regulatory authority over those issues,” spokesperson Martin Mayer told ThinkProgress. The departments of Environmental Quality and of Natural Resources had already both issued permits for the exploratory drilling.

Of course, he’s referring to state agencies that have sided with big oil and gas interests and against the regular folk of Louisiana at every turn. These organizations are run by appointees of the same Jindal administration, or course, that thwarted the lawsuit that would have paid for restoring wetlands. What has happened in my home state is that — as least as far as the environment is concerned — the people have gotten way out in front of the government.  I don’t know if retired Gen. Russel Honore, who now commands a “Green Army” of environmental activists, will enter the race this fall to replace Jindal in the governor’s mansion. I do know that Louisiana needs a new direction.

Read more about the federal approval of wetlands destruction by Hellis Oil and Gas from Think Progress: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/06/12/3667630/louisiana-wetlands-fracking/

I write about the environmental hazards of fracking in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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