One of the three legal challenges to plans for a single fracking well in St. Tammany Parish got underway Tuesday when lawyers for Abita Springs, the state and Helis Oil & Gas Co. squared off before a state district court judge.
The hearing on the Abita Springs suit — the first on the matter in a St. Tammany court — gave lawyers for both sides an opportunity to argue about whether the case should go forward and, if so, where it should be heard. A similar suit was filed by the parish in state court in Baton Rouge, and lawyers for Helis and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources argued Tuesday that the Abita Springs suit should be handled there, as well.
One of their key arguments is that the suit seeks to prevent Helis from acting upon its state-granted drilling permit, which the DNR issued in December. Any suit that seeks to block a drilling permit belongs in Baton Rouge, the lawyers for the state and Helis said.
But Lisa Jordan, who is representing Abita Springs, countered that the suit is actually an attempt to get a judge to rule on whether the town can “rely on St. Tammany Parish’s zoning laws” to protect it from industrial activity such as fracking.
The area of the proposed well — about a mile south of Lakeshore High School, off La. 1088 — is zoned residential. Drilling is classified as an industrial use.
Helis’ lead attorney, Matt Jones, asked Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons, the only witness to testify at the hearing, whether he was trying to enforce Abita Springs’ zoning ordinances or those of the parish.
If the latter, Jones said, the authority to enforce those laws lies with the parish. But if Lemons was trying to enforce Abita Springs’ zoning laws, Jones said, then he was exceeding his authority because the proposed well site lies well outside the town limits and is not a candidate for annexation.
But Lemons and Jordan disagreed, saying the town has a vested interest in what happens outside its boundaries.
“People don’t want to live in close proximity to oil and gas, particularly fracking wells,” Lemons testified. “This affects our economic growth plans.”
Lemons also said that for a town that relies on the perception of its water as healthy, having a fracking well nearby could taint the town’s brand, discouraging new growth and leading to a diminution of city revenue and services.
In response to Jones’ repeated questions about whether Lemons was seeking to enforce parish zoning laws, Jordan said he was not.
“This is not an enforcement action,” she said. “This is about industrial activity in a residential area. That’s it.”
Jones said that question would be answered in a Baton Rouge courtroom in the parish’s lawsuit. A hearing is scheduled in that case next month before Judge William Morvant.
“The mayor will know because of a decision in a suit filed before his by the party that actually has jurisdiction,” Jones said.
At the conclusion of the one-hour hearing, Judge William Knight said he would consider the arguments before issuing a ruling. He did not say when he might issue that ruling.
In addition to the two state lawsuits challenging Helis’ proposed well, a federal suit — also filed by the town of Abita Springs — alleges that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers illegally denied the town’s request for a public hearing on Helis’ application for a permit to drill in wetlands. That application is under consideration. No hearing date has been set in the federal case.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.