How America’s biggest swamp could become fracking wasteland

Environmental groups, locals worry Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin might be destroyed by a proposed industrial facility

A cypress-tupelo swamp in the Atchafalaya Basin.
Julie Dermansky
The FAS disposal site in the Atchafalaya Basin.
Julie Dermansky

BELLE RIVER, La. — In the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country, Julie and Lee Hines considered themselves lucky when they purchased a riverfront property. “I have the bayou in my blood,” said Julie Hines, a lifelong resident of the area.

The Hines family values the outdoors, like most of the other members of the 107 households in the tiny town of Belle River. Many in the region are fishermen, making their living on the water, of which there is plenty.

But the Hines’ dream faded quickly after they felt the impact of nearby industrial facilities’ fugitive emissions and increased truck use. They don’t believe the rules to protect them are enforced rigorously enough and found there is little they can do when the rules are broken.

Now plans for a new facility have sparked fears among Belle River residents that they too will have to deal with increased traffic and pollution and that there might be little anyone can do to stop it. It is a situation that has set off a fierce dispute and highlighted a national issue of how Big Business can sidestep rejections of their plans.

One hundred miles west of New Orleans, Belle River is considered the gateway to the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest wetland in the U.S. The area is famous for its plentiful seafood and cypress-tupelo swamps. “This is no place to dispose of toxic chemicals,” said Dean Wilson, the head of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper grass-roots environmental group.

But that is precisely what FAS Environmental Services has done since the mid-1980s. The company receives industrial waste from processes ranging from conventional oil drilling to hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. The waste can often contain high concentrations of methanol, chloride, sulfates and other substances. “Produced water,” the industry’s name for waste from fracking sites, can also contain toxins like benzene and xylene.

The waste arrives via truck and barge at an FAS transfer station close to the Hines residence, on the flood protection side of the levee. It is then transferred onto a shuttle barge for a 2-mile trip on the Intracoastal Waterway to the company's injection well, where it is pumped at high pressure deep below the surface into rock formations, where it is meant to remain permanently.

Now FAS wants to build a new facility directly across the waterway from the injection well. Its plan requires a pipeline to be built under the Intracoastal, connecting the new facility to the injection well, allowing waste to be moved under the waterway and eliminating the need for the current shuttle barge system. According to FAS, the new station would end the use of shuttle barges, cutting down on the risk of water-borne accidents.

But the proposed facility is in a residential neighborhood not zoned for heavy industrial use. When FAS requested that the local zoning commission rezone the land, its request was denied.

The company could have appealed the decision to the St. Martin Parish Council. Instead, circumventing local laws, it applied for a permit from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) office of conservation, which regulates oil and gas drilling in Louisiana. A decision on the permit application will be made before the end of June.

A battle has erupted between FAS and local residents who oppose overruling local laws, their government representatives and environmental groups.

The DNR doesn’t take zoning into account when considering a permit, department spokesman Patrick Courreges told Al Jazeera. It considers only “construction and environmental protection,” he said, evaluating whether a company will be able to contain materials and clean them up quickly should something go wrong.

Retired Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré at DNR’s public permit hearing in Belle River, Louisiana, in February 2015.
Julie Dermansky

Outside Louisiana, the energy industry has frequently challenged government restrictions with lawsuits and lobbied for legislation that would overturn municipal rulings. In Texas the state legislature recently enacted HB 40, a law that effectively overturns the town of Denton’s fracking ban and other local ordinances on the oil and gas industry.

In Belle River many residents are furious that their objections and regulations may count for little. A recent public hearing for the FAS permit took place in the volunteer fire station in the town and drew a large crowd.

Retired Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré, famous for leading military relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, testified on behalf of the Green Army, a coalition of environmental groups. “Democracy has already failed in Belle River,” he said. “In Louisiana a hearing is just a delay in action before they announce they are going to approve it.”

Residents fear problems at other Louisiana towns offer a taste of what might happen to Belle River. In 2003 a methane leak from a well owned by a Dow Chemical facility forced a 50-day evacuation of 28 residents in Grand Bayou. The company later bought out most of the residents. In 2012 in Bayou Corne, the petrochemical company Texas Brine was held responsible for causing a massive sinkhole. The sinkhole released deposits of natural gas into the aquifer that spread underneath Bayou Corne, leading officials to call for a mandatory evacuation. Now only a handful of 350 residents remain, leaving Bayou Corne almost a ghost town.

At the permit hearing in Belle River, residents, local politicians and representatives from environmental groups, including Honoré, disputed claims the company made in its proposal. Lee and Julie Hines, who live closest to the existing FAS transfer station, warned about the company’s practices. “What they say and what they do are completely different things," Julie Hines testified.

When FAS asked for a permit for the first facility, it said waste would arrive at the transfer station only by barge. But less than two years later, the company wrote a letter to the DNR asking for permission to receive waste by truck too. Up to 57 trucks a day now also use the current facility, according to FAS documents submitted to the DNR for the hearing.

Lee Hines argued that FAS operations at the proposed facility, including the use of generators, could cause the levee to vibrate, potentially jeopardizing the levee’s structural integrity. The levee is the community’s principal flood protection. A breach in the levee would likely result in a disaster.

State Rep. Sam Jones also voiced his concerns about the facility putting additional stress on the levee and the facility’s potential to be flooded. “The question is not if we are going to have another flood that will swamp this station. It is when,” he said. Belle River is prone to flooding. Hurricanes Gustav and Ike significantly damaged Belle River’s boat landing near FAS’ proposed site.

No representative from FAS spoke on behalf of the company at the hearing, and the company did not return phone calls to Al Jazeera.

At the permit hearing, environmental scientist Wilma Subra testified on behalf of Louisiana Environmental Action Network that the project’s design cannot cope with the flood levels predicted for a 100-year flood. “The project’s potential to flood will be built in,” she said. That is particularly worrying, as the area has reached the 100-year-flood level three times in the last 40 years. 

In its permit application, FAS stated that the company doesn’t plan to increase the amount of waste material it is accepting and that it would no longer use the current facility if a new one is built. The company said that building the new transfer station at the new location will enable them to streamline operations and eliminate a degree of risk.

Residents, however, were skeptical that FAS does not plan to increase capacity. FAS will not be required to close the current transfer station or decommission the shuttle barges as a condition for getting the new permit. At the hearing, those against the proposal said they believed the company may try to keep its current facility operational and expand operations.

“If FAS wants to accept more material than their application states, all it has to do is write DNR a letter and ask to take in more,” Subra said. She also pointed out that FAS has stated its new facility will be able to handle fracking waste from new deposits like the Tuscaloosa Shale and the Haynesville Shale as well as material from Northern states looking to transport waste by barge if the Coast Guard permits it.

The Coast Guard has been considering allowing barges to transport fracking waste down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River and then to the Atchafalaya Basin. “The decision has not been finalized, and there is no estimated time for the decision,” Coast Guard spokeswoman Cynthia A. Znati said in an email.

FAS’ track record is another problem. In 2013 an FAS manager was found guilty of taking kickbacks from a wastewater brokerage firm and allowing the disposal of 380,000 gallons of industrial wastewater that contained chemicals not permitted to be dumped at the facility. The Environmental Protection Agency determined the owners of FAS were not aware of the manager’s wrongdoing and didn’t profit from it.

Subra said that the DNR has no mandatory inspection schedule for injection wells or transfer stations. A DNR representative was unable to tell Al Jazeera the last time the FAS injection well and transfer facility were inspected, nor could it confirm how often the agency is required to visit.

Most Belle River residents are not optimistic they can stop FAS. When zoning rules are challenged, the courts moderate between local governments and corporations. In April two court challenges based on local zoning rules against a proposed fracking project in St. Tammany Parish, 40 miles from New Orleans, were dismissed.

Any ruling against industry can come at a potential cost for elected officials seeking funding for their campaigns. Don Briggs, the president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, wrote in a plan of action posted on the organization’s website, “Judges that blatantly rule against the industry, parish presidents that stand behind egregious lawsuits and mayors that publicly support litigations to prevent oil and gas activity were elected at some point in time. These same officials can also be voted out of office.”

Guy Cormier, the president of St. Martin's Parish, stressed when he testified at the hearing that he is not anti-industry but that it was his job to protect the community by enforcing zoning laws. He told the DNR the parish will not issue FAS a building permit, even if the DNR permits the company’s new facility. If that is how things unfold, FAS can then sue the parish.

Honoré pointed out that if FAS builds the facility, despite zoning rules forbidding it, a dangerous precedent would be set. “If it can happen here,” he said, “it can happen anywhere.”

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