Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and officials in St. Martin Parish have joined forces in opposing what they characterize as an illegal expansion by oilfield waste disposal company in the Atchafalaya Basin.

F.A.S. Environmental Services applied in April for a rezoning of land near the community of Belle River where it wants to expand a waste transfer station; the station would handle hundreds of thousands of barrels of waste from conventional drilling as well as fracking. The St. Martin Parish Planning and Zoning Board, however, denied the rezoning request. What did F.A.S. do? An end run around the zoning board. The company now claims the rezoning request was unnecessary and instead submitted a permit request directly to the state Department of Natural Resources, widely considered to be an institutional “yes man” for the oil and gas industry in Louisiana.

Atchafalaya Basinkeeper on Monday issued a press release detailing the plan and its shared commitment with elected officials in the parish to oppose DNR issuing the permit:

According to the company’s permit application with DNR’s Office of Conservation, F.A.S. expects to handle 175,000 barrels of exploration and production (E&P) waste on average per month. Of that amount, the company estimates 99 percent of it will be “produced water” or waste from processes that can range from conventional drilling to hydraulic fracturing. If approved, the permit also would allow the company “to accept other types of waste, such as completion fluids, freshwater, rainwater, washout water, washout pit water, gas plant water liquids, pipeline wastewater and commercial facility waste.” The application also states the waste can include or create hydrogen sulfide gas, known for its rotten egg smell, which is poisonous and can cause cancer.

Ignoring the parish’s Planning and Zoning Board understandably has some St. Martin Parish officials incensed, including Parish President Guy Cormier. “For 19 years, people have been following the law and this is the first time we have a company that says, ‘We don’t think we need your permission and we are just going to move forward with the proposed plan to expand our business.’ The parish council said absolutely not,” Cormier says in the Basinkeeper release.

More from the press release:

● Responsible? F.A.S. and its owners “plan on being responsible and valuable members of the community in which they live and exist for a very long time.”  The company’s commitment to the community should be evident in its actions.  However, F.A.S. has a disturbing track record, including several self-reported incidents, more than 160 truck violations, and operating without the approval of the Louisiana Public service Commission. Additionally, in 2012 the manager of the F.A.S. facility was convicted of illegally pumping more than 380,000 gallons of industrial waste into the injection well near Belle River.    

● Health risks? F.A.S. handles E&P waste that can contain:

Industrial chemicals. Flow back and produced water contain chemicals that are injected into the oil wells to facilitate drilling. For example, in the Marcellus Shale, flow back water contains high concentrations of sodium, magnesium, iron, barium, strontium, manganese, methanol, chloride, sulfate, and other substances.

Hydrocarbons. Produced water can contain hydrocarbons – including the toxics benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene – which can be freed during the drilling process.

Radioactive material. Water returned to the surface during drilling can carry naturally occurring radioactive materials, referred to by the industry as “NORM.” Flow back and produced water from several large U.S. shale formations have been found to contain the radioactive element radium. When produced water is salty and rich in chlorides, radium tends to be present in higher concentrations. The EPA allows a maximum of 5 picocuries of radium per liter of drinking water. Produced water has been found to contain radium levels as high as 9,000 picocuries per liter.

DNR’s analysis of E&P waste documents it typically contains benzene, a highly volatile chemical the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined causes cancer. The Center for Disease Control also reports long-term exposure (a year or more) can damage bone marrow and decrease red blood cells, leading to anemia. It can also cause excessive bleeding and can affect the immune system, increasing the chance for infection. This is not the kind of waste that we want to have stored in the community of Belle River, next to the Belle River Landing.

● Community impact? F.A.S. denied rumors it plans to build and operate a new injection well on the proposed site for its transfer station. It contends the expansion is aimed at safer operations and “better protections for natural resources,” while also improving company operations and efficiency by putting the facility closer (1.75 miles) to its current injection well disposal facility. However, Belle River residents told St. Martin officials they fear allowing the expansion will invite more heavy industry to the levee. They maintain that this facility alone could bring the equivalent of one tanker truck every 15 minutes on the Levee Highway, LA-997, which is two lanes, narrow and has little to no shoulders. Also, the Atchafalaya Basin is among the most important natural assets in southern Louisiana and should be preserved for generations to come. It contains the largest and most productive swamps in North America. The Belle River area is the most productive in the entire Basin, containing the highest concentration of Southern Bald Eagles in the world. Also, bird watching itself has an economic impact of $85 billion a year in the U.S., and this area of the Basin is one of the best in North America for bird watching. Expanding industries like this one will surely cause further damage to Louisiana’s natural heritage, as well as eco-tourism in the area.

● Overriding Parish Government? F.A.S. contends since it is constructing a transfer facility and not creating an E&P waste injection well, the project complies with the area’s current W-1 zoning if it is associated with oil and gas exploration and production. But St. Martin Councilman Carroll Delahoussaye, who represents this area, maintained denying the permit for the facility would not prevent F.A.S. from doing business because it also barges oilfield wastes from a terminal on LA-70 in Belle River.

● Support? ABK supports St. Martin Parish’s decision against the rezoning. In reality, F.A.S. Environmental Services’ transfer station is an expansion of its facility since the station would have no purpose without the existing injection wells and it will allow this company to increase the volume of waste disposed at this location. Additionally, if the facility is approved, there is nothing stopping the company for drilling new wells. Truck traffic will seriously affect the quality of life of residents and potentially harm ecotourism in the area. According to St. Martin Parish resident and Basinkeeper Board Member Greg Guirard: “There is something about being out on the swamp when you are alone that sucks the poisons of civilization out of you. It’s a sort of healing power that lets you be yourself again. That’s the kind of thing that would be ruined by a facility like this.”

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