Abita Springs files suit again to stop fracking well _lowres

Advocate file photo by VERONICA DOMINACH

The town of Abita Springs has launched yet another legal challenge intended to block the drilling of a fracking well in St. Tammany Parish.

The latest maneuver, a lawsuit filed in federal court against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, alleges that the Corps illegally denied the town’s request for a public hearing on Helis Oil and Gas Co.’s application for a permit to drill at a site designated as wetlands. That application is under consideration by the Corps.

The suit, filed Thursday, asks a judge to order the Corps to hold the public hearing and to invalidate a public notice posted Oct. 14 by the Corps. The latter move would require a new public notice of the company’s application and an attendant 30-day public comment period.

The pending application for a wetlands permit is the company’s second. The Corps asked Helis to revise its first after geologists raised questions about whether the site could produce enough oil to make it commercially viable.

The Corps posted the second application on Oct. 14, opening a 30-day comment period. During that period, Abita Springs requested a public hearing on the application, which was not granted.

Since April, when word of the company’s plans to drill a horizontal fracking well on a wooded 960-acre tract north of Interstate 12 and east of La. 1088 leaked out, opposition in St. Tammany Parish has been vociferious and multifaceted.

At least three lawsuits have been filed, on top of numerous public gatherings where opponents have voiced concerns. In addition to this latest challenge, Abita Springs has filed a suit in state district court in Covington, and St. Tammany Parish and the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany group have joined together on a suit filed against Louisiana Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh in state court in Baton Rouge. That suit sought to prevent Welsh from issuing the drilling permit, something he did in December.

Through it all, Helis has remained relatively quiet. It has received votes of support from some business organizations, including the Northshore Business Council and the Tammany West Chamber of Commerce.

The company’s plans are for a two-stage drilling project.

The first stage would be a single vertical shaft drilled more than 12,000 feet deep. Samples would be collected from that shaft and tested to see if the rock formation deep underground could be a viable commercial source of oil.

If the samples are promising, the company plans to drill a horizontal well some 5,000 feet long and begin use of a procedure known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Water, sand and other chemicals would be injected into the ground at high pressure to create cracks in rock through which oil and gas can be extracted.

The wetlands permit application now before the Corps is for a vertical well only and a 3.2-acre drilling pad.

If Helis decides to move forward with the second phase, it would have to construct a 10-acre drilling pad and apply for a new wetlands permit with the Corps.

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.