Progress for the people of Louisiana


One of the major themes I’ve been writing about frequently in the last year is the rising environmental movement in Louisiana. To be clear, my home state already boasted some fierce fighters for environmental justice, like Marylee Orr and her Louisiana Environmental Action Network, or the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, doing battle with dirty chemical plants. But the shock of recent events such as the BP oil spill and the Bayou Corne sinkhole has caused a lot more people to wake up, and they’ve rallied behind movements like Gen. Russel Honore’s “Green Army.”

The goal of the movement, at its core, is to wrest power and influence back from bureaucrats in Baton Rouge who’ve been in the back pocket of the oil companies for years. The public in Louisiana is so accustomed to bad environmental decisions getting rammed down their throats that any decision that benefits the citizenry and is against the interests of corporations is a big deal. And this week, the people posted two victories, one in a court of law and one in a court of public opinion.

The first involved Lake Peigneur, an endangered resource not far from where the Bayou Corne sinkhole occurred:

A New Iberia judge has reversed a decision by the state Department of Natural Resources to grant a permit to Jefferson Island Storage & Hub for the proposed expansion of natural gas storage caverns on Lake Peigneur.

Save Lake Peigneur, a nonprofit group that’s been fighting the expansion of natural gas storage at Lake Peigneur in Iberia Parish for almost a decade, filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming that it failed to properly assess the potential environmental impact that two additional natural gas storage caverns would have on the lake and nearby groundwater.

The company already operates two natural gas storage caverns at the lake and is trying to construct two more.

In the lawsuit, Save Lake Peigneur members reference the unexplained “bubbling” that’s been occurring at the lake since 2006, also noting that the construction of the caverns could jeopardize and contaminate groundwater from the Chicot Aquifer.

The judge’s ruling means that now state regulators will have to perform proper environmental impact studies, which should have been done in the first place. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, activists fighting a proposed fracking operation near an environmentally sensitive aquifer in St. Tammany Parish also convinced Baton Rouge to shift gears:

In an unusual move, the state Office of Conservation has agreed to hold a public hearing in St. Tammany Parish to gather public comment on Helis Oil & Gas Co.’s application for a permit to drill a well near Mandeville. The hearing was requested by the town of Abita Springs and the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which is fighting the oil company’s proposal to drill a well northeast of Mandeville and use the controversial fracking method to extract oil.

A decision on the permit request will be on hold until a hearing can be held, probably in November, and a written public comment period is allowed for at least seven days after the hearing, said Patrick Courreges, communications director for the state Department of Natural Resources. A date and location for the hearing have not been set.

DNR had said previously that Helis’ permit request would be considered in an administrative process and that no public meetings, where citizens could voice support or opposition, would be held.

DNR is a notoriously pro-business outfit, and they are used to doing business behind closed doors. This move doesn’t mean that Hellis won’t ultimately be given a permit, but just the decision to hold a hearing is one small step for humankind. In both cases, you see what concerned citizens can accomplish, using legal pressure, political pressure and whatever other tools they have at their disposal. It gives me more hope that the balance between corporations and clean water and clean air will keep swinging in the right direction. The election of 2015 will be a good time to test that momentum.

Read more about the legal victory in the fight to save Lake Peigneur at:

Learn more from about the hearing in the St. Tammany fracking controversy:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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