MANDEVILLE, La. - The first buzz of activity linked to Helis Oil's St. Tammany fracking project can be found at the corner of I-12 and Highway 1088.
A stalled subdivision development has become the company's source for dirt, water and the first of two environmental monitoring locations. The dirt, dug up to create the neighborhood's retention pond, is being used to revamp the main road through the drilling site, about a mile north on Highway 1088. The rainwater that has filled the pond will be included in the drilling process. Both have tested clean, according to Helis.
The other testing spot is on the Lakeshore High campus, which sits across the street from the now-bustling entrance to the drilling site.
"Everything collects data via samples, discreet samples, or continuous monitoring equipment," said Doug Herlocker, an air specialist with Tetra Tech.
Air testing, already creating baseline figures, covers pollutants like carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide, and is being done with federally-approved equipment and methods. Some will be watched hourly, others every three days and the school district will have its own expert review the data. Helis says it will spend upwards of a million dollars on monitoring equipment, but it's worth it.
"It's unusual," said project manager Mike Barham, "But again, at the end of the day, we're gonna have the data to show, hey, the ground water was not harmed during our operation, the air was not harmed."
The site work where phase one, a vertical well, will be placed, is expected to take two more weeks to complete, then the rig moves on site. At that point, drilling is expected to take another 30 days, and should be wrapped up, with testing beginning on the results by mid-August.
However, before drilling begins, area first responders will have an emergency drill on-site. Sound baffles will be placed around the rig, noise monitors installed and a water well will be drilled on the well pad, for water testing.
But the extra effort still isn't satisfying some.
"Self-reporting is not regulating. Basically they will give the information they want and make it sound like a pretty story like they did today and it won't give any real protection to any of the residents living around there," said Mike Stagg with civic group Preserve St. Tammany Initiative.
If Helis finds promising results from its vertical drill, it will need to apply for two more permits in order to start an actual fracking operation.
An appeal effort to halt the work is pending.
In the meantime, the Preserve St. Tammany Initiative, is hosting an informational meeting Monday night, regarding efforts to require regulations on heavy industrial activity in the parish.
The group plans to start a petition, to eventually present to the parish council, that will allow voters to decide in October whether industrial developments should post bonds in case of accidents.
The meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Abita Springs Town Hall on June 22.