The Chicot Aquifer stretches over 9,000 square miles below the surface of southwest and parts of central Louisiana.

Cities and towns in 15 parishes rely on it for drinking water, and more than 600 million gallons of water get pumped out of it each day. For most of its span, the aquifer is capped by a layer of dense clay about 35 feet beneath the southwestern quarter of Louisiana.

Residents and elected officials in St. Landry Parish are worried the aquifer could be at risk if the state Department of Natural Resources grants a permit for a commercial wastewater injection well in the Beggs community.

Eagle Oil LLC, which includes three people from the Lafayette area, is seeking to install the well, which would be used to dispose of fracking waste from oil and natural gas drilling.

“Chapter 5 to the state administrative code requires protection of drinking water sources,” said Elizabeth Roche, an environmental attorney representing local residents. “And we've identified some problems with Eagle Oil's application there in that they didn't examine adequately that the depth to the Chicot is varied and in some places near the site it's as low as 30 feet below the surface.

“That's not that far to get contamination into the Chicot if something were to happen."

The three involved with the application — attorney J.M. Fussell Jr. of Lafayette, Toby Hargrave of Rayne and Nicholas Palmer of Lafayette — did not attend the Jan. 31 public hearing in Opelousas.

The group’s plan got voted down by the St. Landry Parish Council during a January 2018 meeting.

"The goal of the UIC (Underground Injection Control) program is to protect all underground sources of drinking water," Eagle Oil said in a statement. "Accordingly, a permit to operate the SWD (saltwater disposal) well and facility in question will only be granted if the Office of Conservation determines the application complies with all statutorily mandated requirements. 

"Eagle Oil, LLC believes its application does comply with all such regulations, and it respectfully awaits the final decision of the Office of Conservation."

The permit

The confining clay of the aquifer in the area of northern St. Landry Parish, Roche noted, is not as thick as it is in other areas. Just north of the area is the Re-Charge Zone, which allows rainfall to enter the aquifer. 

The requirements to protect this area, she believes, are not being met to protect the aquifer.

"The department of natural resources has an obligation to do this assessment,” Roche said. “And some of those questions they have to answer are if environmental impacts have been minimized and if alternative sites could minimize those risks more, and those two questions are where the application falls short. Eagle Oil really didn't look at the effects.”

When the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development does construction over the aquifer, it uses methods "least sensitive to the aquifer system in its path" but does issues similar requirements to others. Roche and others believe that the proposed 7 billion gallons of oilfield waste will not remain under the property and could spread under nearby properties and possibly into the aquifer.

"You have no idea what they're putting in that ground,” said Kenny Fontenot, who has lived across the street from the site for more than 30 years. “It's not like they're putting it into a cavern. They're forcing it into the ground. It's going to travel. There's a lot of other places this stuff can go besides in a community …. It's hard to comprehend this."

Fontenot and others in the Beggs community have spoken out against the permit, citing problems with the 340-page document. One contention is that Eagle Oil stated "site reconnaissance indicates no standing surface water or flooding" on the property and that they have "never observed flooding on the property and that it has historically drained well."

Roche and other landowners argue that the current property floods regularly. Aerial photos from Brendan Keefe, an FAA-licensed drone pilot whose father-in-law lives nearby, alleged that standing water remained after 5 p.m. on a day in December after 1.7 inches of rain fell that morning.

Parish officials also are concerned about the site’s proximity to the St. Landry Parish Landfill a mile away. A leak at the site could contaminate up to two miles of land around it, and closing and cleaning up the contamination in the landfill could cost taxpayers $7 million, Parish Councilman Harold Taylor said. 

Parish officials, he said, would have to pass a tax for a new landfill.

"DNR requires $172,000 in escrow (for the well operator),” Taylor said. “Landfills are something you have to have. Maybe you have to have saltwater injection wells, but, golly, it doesn't have to be next to our landfill.”

Who is Eagle Oil?

Taylor said he met someone who he thinks was Palmer during that council meeting in January 2018. The three, however, did not attend the public hearing in Opelousas, which had people standing in the aisles waiting to speak during the three-hour meeting.

Taylor claims the group has not met with anyone who lives near the site. Eagle Oil did not respond to an emailed question Wednesday regarding Taylor’s claim.

“They haven’t spoken to anyone in the community” he said. “Certainly, if I was in a position and I was proposing something like this, the first step would be to get the community behind this. But that didn’t happen.

I will give kudos to the community. They have organized and done everything they possibly can to speak out on this issue.”

DNR officials have received hundreds of letters regarding the issue, including one from Taylor, and recorded comments during the public hearing. From there the company and the department will negotiate over issues as to whether or not the well meets state requirements, spokesman Patrick Courreges said.

In Louisiana, there are less than 20 wastewater injection wells, Courreges said, with many in a section of north Louisiana along with some in the southeast Louisiana.

Many companies who drill will install an injection well nearby. But the Eagle Oil well is a commercial well, which can take waste from any number of places.

“It’s going to be anyone with the money to pay them,” Courreges said. “They (wells) could go for decades.”

Follow Dan Boudreaux on Twitter, @dan_boudreaux

Adam Daigle contributed to this report.