MANDEVILLE, La. (AP) — St. Tammany Parish residents packed a public meeting this past week to oppose a proposed oil well near Lakeshore High School in Mandeville.
It was the fourth such meeting in the past month, and as at the previous meetings many residents carried signs and wore shirts stating their feelings.
The meeting, held at Pelican Park's Castine Center, drew several hundred people to hear a talk by Parish Councilman Jake Groby, a presentation by environmentalist Wilma Subra and a talk about coastal issues by John Barry.
Helis Oil & Gas — which plans to drill a hydraulic fracturing well north of Interstate 12 and east of Louisiana Highway 1088 — was absent. The company has not sent a representative to previous community meetings.
Much of the opposition has centered on Helis' plans to use hydraulic fracturing, a method in which water, sand and chemicals are injected into the ground to create fissures in rock more than two miles deep. Oil and natural gas can move through the fissures and then can be pumped out.
So much unrest about the proposed project prompted Helis to modify its proposal and slow the development of an oil well in St. Tammany.
In an agreement that Parish President Pat Brister called a "compromise," Helis agreed to a phased approach for the project. During the first phase, Helis would drill only a 13,000-foot-deep vertical well, from which it will collect samples for testing. After that, the well would be plugged with cement above the shale formation from which the samples are taken and the samples would be tested. That process would take up to four months, parish and company officials said.
Only if the samples show the formation could produce a commercially viable amount of oil would Helis use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract the oil.
The technology is relatively new, and none of the wells drilled in St. Tammany Parish over the past several decades used fracturing as the method of extraction.
In other parts of the country, however, fracturing has been blamed for issues with drinking water, earthquakes and health, air and water quality problems.
Subra told the crowd at the latest public meeting that she had studied health effects from fracturing wells in Texas and Wyoming. Problems there included chronic indigestion, forgetfulness, memory loss and mood swing. She also warned that processing facilities, pipelines and other hazards could be placed close to homes.
"These things could be coming to your community," Subra said.
Many of Subra's concerns have been echoed by St. Tammany residents at earlier meetings and on social media sites.
Much of the opposition focuses on potential damage to the Southern Hills Aquifer, the underground source from which all of St. Tammany Parish draws its drinking water.
Helis had been asked to send a representative to the May 12 meeting, Groby said, but the company instead sent a statement from president David Kerstein that read in part, "We will continue to communicate with the St. Tammany community through mechanisms and venues that do justice to this important subject in a way that is both respectful and cooperative."
A May 1 statement from Helis also attempted to allay residents' fears, saying several Helis employees reside in St. Tammany and that the company has safely drilled hundreds of wells in Louisiana and approximately 60 fractured wells to the same depth as the one planned for St. Tammany, with no "significant environmentally related incident."
Hunter Montgomery and Stephanie Houston Grey, who started the two Facebook pages opposing the proposed well, said they felt the company isn't being completely forthcoming.
"They are still only talking about one site," Montgomery said — not additional wells that might follow if the first one proves productive.
Helis has applied to the state's commissioner of conservation for a "unitization hearing," a hearing that sets the boundaries of a drilling unit, a key step that must be taken before the company can apply for a permit to actually drill the well. The company has identified a 960-acre tract on which it wishes to put one well on a 10-acre site.
Helis originally asked for that hearing to be held this past week, but parish leaders asked for a delay. Brister and Council Chairman Reid Falconer said the hearing will be held in June.
That announcement capped a month in which residents and officials sought ways to delay or stop Helis' plans as public concern rose.
On May 1, the Parish Council passed a resolution to hire an attorney to safeguard parish interests.
Information from: The New Orleans Advocate, http://www.neworleansadvocate.com