St. Tammany Parish officials who inspected Helis Oil & Gas Co.’s drilling site Friday found that the company was “doing exactly what they said,” namely, completing installation of air and groundwater monitoring stations at the site of a controversial planned fracking well, according to Ronnie Simpson, a spokesman for Parish President Pat Brister.
The parish had issued a cease-and-desist order Monday, shutting down construction activity at the 3-acre site east of La. 1088 following a judge’s ruling that the parish’s appeal of a court case could suspend the work. Helis asked to be allowed to finish work on the monitoring equipment, saying that state law does not allow water wells to be left open and unsecured.
On Wednesday, the parish agreed to allow a limited scope of work — completion of the monitoring stations — and parish Planning Director Sidney Fontenot and Permits Director Kenneth Wortmann went to the site Friday to ensure that is what Helis is doing — and nothing more.
But Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, an activist group that also is a party to the parish’s lawsuit, was not given the same access, and the group was not happy about it.
“It is troubling that Helis will not allow a CCST member to visit the Helis site to verify that Helis is not ramping up drilling preparation activity,” the group said in a prepared statement. “In light of Helis’ defiant public statements about the recent court ruling, it is reasonable to let the public see for itself that Helis is indeed abiding by its newest promises. Why is it so important to Helis to shield its activities from the public eye?”
CCST also questioned the parish government’s actions, saying it was troubling that while the parish is suing to stop the company from violating parish zoning ordinances, it is “simultaneously allowing Helis to perform work at the site that appears to bring the drilling closer to completion.”
The group had sought to send a representative to the site to verify that the oil company is actually demobilizing, attorney Andrew Jacoby said. But Helis refused.
An email from Matt Jones, an attorney for Helis, said the company is acting in good faith to comply with the parish’s order and welcomed the parish inspection.
“Helis does not believe that CCST has any role in this administrative proceeding, and Helis does not intend for those without a role in the inspection to participate in any respect with it,” Jones said.
The company is “unaware” of any expertise or qualifications CCST would bring to the inspection, he added.
Jacoby said the citizen group is reviewing its options, although he said that was not a threat of legal action.
When Helis finishes work on the monitoring stations, the parish will inspect the site again, Simpson said.
Helis spokesman Greg Beuerman said that will likely be in about 10 days to two weeks.
He said the company wanted to finish setting up the air-monitoring equipment, which workers were calibrating Friday. Helis plans to continue operating that equipment, as well as two air- and noise-monitoring stations located near the proposed drilling site, one at Lakeshore High School and the other near Interstate 12 and La. 1088, Beuerman said.
The state has required Helis to dig 12 water-monitoring wells, he said, and those are being secured.
The ruling that prompted the parish to issue the cease-and-desist order was issued by 19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant, of Baton Rouge, who had ruled earlier that St. Tammany could not use its zoning laws to prevent Helis from drilling a state-permitted oil well.
Morvant decided Monday to allow the parish’s suspensive appeal of his ruling to go forward, which sets aside the effect of his earlier ruling while the parish appeals to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal.
Helis has said it believes the stop-work order is illegal but that it will comply.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.