Stephanie Grace: St. Tammany as ground zero for green movement?

If Louisiana is finally going to have an environmental moment, maybe it had to happen in a place like St. Tammany Parish.

Sure, things have been slowly building for some time. The Bayou Corne sinkhole produced some horrifying video, but it affected hundreds, not thousands, of homeowners. The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East lawsuit seeking redress from oil and gas companies that contributed to coastal degradation stirred up plenty of support but not enough to ward off an intensive lobbying effort by industry to kill it in the cradle. Several parish lawsuits over similar issues did survive the session, but that stemmed more from behind-the-scenes pressure from parish politicians rather than any big public outcry.

But St. Tammany, home to legions of regulation-averse, Drill-Baby-Drill Republicans, going green? It’s kind of like Nixon going to communist China. You’ve got to sit up and take notice.

The move to quash Helis Oil & Gas’ hopes to drill for oil in suburban St. Tammany using the controversial method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — adjacent to the parish’s main water supply, no less — has grown into a full-fledged populist revolt. That much was clear to anyone who watched Thursday night’s Parish Council meeting, where speakers decried Big Oil, embraced EPA standards and talked of adopting tactics used in places like Vermont — and France. Fueling already sky-high concern was a scathing new legislative audit noting the state’s lax record of regulating oil wells, which Councilman Gene Bellisario labeled a “game changer.”

The council was in no mood to argue Thursday, with members scrambling to stay ahead of a train that’s gaining momentum daily, even if it’s not at all clear that they, rather than the state, have much authority.

Council members voted three times to erect some sort of barrier on the tracks, and each measure passed unanimously after a parade of residents chimed in support. One resolution calls for the parish to use EPA methods to establish a prefracking water quality baseline. The second asks the state conservation commissioner to delay a decision on issuing permits. The third authorizes the parish’s law firm to seek an injunction preventing permits from being issued and examine whether the parish might be able to block the project using its zoning authority.

The only slightly different note came from Rick Franzo, president of the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, who said he didn’t support the resolution on the table only because he wanted the council to pursue a full, permanent ban. Council members said afterward that they’d look into that possibility, too.

If there were any Helis supporters in the packed chamber or overflow crowd who thought differently, they kept it to themselves. Helis, which has kept a distinctly low profile throughout the controversy, sent a letter to public officials decrying what it called “misinformation” and vowing to be a courteous, conscientious “guest” of the community, but did not send a representative to speak.

Some speakers questioned proponents’ motives, citing the state’s history of favoring big moneyed interests and looking the other way on environmental enforcement. But many focused on unknowns and unintended consequences.

Jim Blazek, CCST’s legal chair, drew on his career as an attorney for big oil companies that, he said, did their best but couldn’t control the actions of contractors and other factors.

“There is a potential catastrophe waiting, based on my track record,” Blazek said.

Slidell physician Michael Finn offered this warning: “You need to understand that everything that we do, whether it’s to our bodies or to the environment, has complications.”

At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the uprising as a comeuppance to those who don’t worry about such matters until they arrive on their doorsteps.

Still, it’s impossible to have this conversation without considering the larger implications. Not every site is near a school and not every community is up in arms, but the fight still raises questions.

If one message from Thursday’s meeting is that residents want parish government to find a way to act, another is that voters will hold local pols accountable if they don’t. One speaker urged council members to sue even if it means big bills. Others pointed to the oath council members had taken to protect the parish’s well-being.

“It’s really important that you stand up for your people and say ‘We’re not doing this here,’ ” said Melissa Pearson, of Mandeville. “We have shale, everybody wants it but we don’t have to give it to them. That is our right as Americans.”

Whether the law backs up Pearson’s assessment remains to be seen. But somehow, it’s hard to see sentiment that strong waning, whether Helis gets the go-ahead or not.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.