MANDEVILLE, La. There have been protests and heated public meetings over a proposal to begin fracking in St. Tammany Parish.
Now, the Army Corps of Engineers is spelling out concerns from state and federal agencies in response to a permit application for a drilling well pad along Hwy. 1088.
The Environmental Protection Agency, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and Army Corps of Engineers expressed concerns about the proposed site and its potential impact on the wetlands in a letter to Helis Oil and Gas.
'Their concerns have to be addressed before we move forward with a permit. We look to them for their expertise,' said Ricky Boyett, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman.
In the letter, the EPA says the project doesn't comply with federal guidelines because Helis wants to build on wetlands, and there's been no indication the company has taken steps to avoid or minimize impacts or considered alternative sites that don't include wetlands.
It recommends that the Army Corps of Engineers not issue a permit until Helis can say why the project needs to be located within a wetland area. It also wants Helis to examine whether impacts to wetlands can be minimized by reducing the project's footprint.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is also concerned about an open waste pit that would be located right next to a forested wetland area. The biggest issue is that the waste could overflow into wetlands or unprotected soils if the area floods.
It also says that the proposed well pad is extensive compared to existing well pads the department has reviewed in the past.
The Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany Parish, a group formed to fight fracking in the parish, said the letter is a step in the right direction.
'We know there's going to be a problem one day down the road. Helis has not given us a contingency plan, or what I call plan B, there is no plan B,' said Rick Franzo, Concerned Citizens president.
A Helis spokesman said the company chose the proposed site for a well pad because its own experts said it would be the least likely of four initial proposed sites to be classified as a wetlands area.
Now, Helis will make any necessary adjustments to move the process forward, said Greg Beuerman, a Helis spokesman.
The corps has asked Helis to look for other sites in the region that would be less environmentally damaging. Only if Helis can prove there are no other viable sites will the corps consider allowing them to proceed with building the project if the company comes up with a mitigation plan.
'The most important thing to us is to make sure we're making the right decision,' said Boyett. 'Whether it is to issue or deny a permit, we need to make sure it's based in science and engineering.'
Before the corps can issue a permit, Helis has to respond to concerns and the DEQ has to certify the company's projected impact on water quality.
The corps is working with DEQ to decide whether to hold a public hearing on the issue.
The Department of Natural Resources would also have to issue a drilling permit. The agency says Helis has not yet applied for one.
'The corps' response to our application is a routine part of the process and is nothing unusual. Permitting is often a process of questions, answers and public comment and this project is certainly no different,' said Beuerman in an emailed statement.
'We are formulating a written response for the corps' review at this time and expect to have that submitted shortly as we are committed to keeping this important energy project on schedule.
'It is my understanding that as a result of an earlier meeting with the corps we made adjustments in our well pad location as they recommended. Still, we will continue to work with them to ensure that their requests are fully understood and factored into our plans.'