Lake Peigneur controversy seeks resolution

Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Louis Derise walks the perimeter of his property on Lake Peigneur near Erath on Friday morning. Derise supports Senate Bill 200, which would halt furthur drilling below Lake Peigneur.
Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Louis Derise walks the perimeter of his property on Lake Peigneur near Erath on Friday morning. Derise supports Senate Bill 200, which would halt furthur drilling below Lake Peigneur.

Every morning, Louis Derise brews a cup of coffee and steps outside to savor the beauty of a lake no longer littered with the pilings from abandoned wellheads and platforms.

“That’s my favorite part of my day. I get me a cup of coffee and go stare at the water,” he said.

Derise’s property bumps up to Lake Peigneur, which straddles Vermilion and Iberia parishes.

The lake currently is the focus of a tug-of-war between industry and residents. AGL Resources’ plans to expand an underground natural gas storage operation in the salt dome beneath the water bottom.

State Sen. Fred Mills, R-St. Martinville, filed Senate Bill 200 to stop the expansion because of a 1980 drilling accident and a nearby sinkhole. Lobbyists fought back, arguing that the oil and gas industry is running out of places to store natural gas. An initial vote on the bill in early May fell five votes short on the state Senate floor.

“The bill’s on hold. It’s still alive,” Mills said Thursday.

In the lull, the Atlanta-headquartered AGL resources offered a compromise.

The company will put expansion plans on hold for a year and work with the state Department of Natural Resources to determine whether foaming on the lake’s surface stems from instability in the salt dome and signals the possible release of gas to the lake’s surface.

“While we have expended extraordinary efforts to ensure that the salt dome project would be constructed in a safe and reliable manner, this cooling-off period hopes to allow time to further address some of the major environmental concerns about our project,” said Duane A. Bourne, spokesman for AGL.

Mills said he wants residents to come to a decision this weekend on the company’s offer or a possible counteroffer.

Nara Crowley, president of Save Lake Peigneur, said by email that her organization’s board will have to meet and discuss what is on the table. “We are thinking about the offer,” Crowley wrote.

The lake — home to 4,000 residents — made headlines in 1980 when a drilling rig pushed through the top of a salt mine and punched a hole in the bottom of the lake, draining the water and dragging barges into the suction.

The volume of the water triggered a backflow from the Delcambre Canal that created a temporary waterfall and transformed the lake from a freshwater fishing hole into deep, brackish waters.

During the cleanup, Texaco pulled up thousands of pilings that littered the lake. In addition to serving as a scenic backdrop for homes, the lake sits atop a salt dome that industry tunnels into to store natural gas. Mills compared the size of existing storage caverns to the Twin Towers of the former World Trade Center in New York City.

AGL’s efforts to expand its operation at Lake Peigneur have been on hold since 2006, when then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco sparked a lawsuit by calling for an extensive environmental study. The case against the state settled in 2009 with an agreement for additional safeguards.

Four years later, AGL lacks two of the three permits needed to start the expansion. The company can do some dredging work to make room for necessary equipment but cannot scour out caverns in the salt dome to create new storage space for natural gas.

Adding to residents’ angst over the plans is the swampland sinkhole that emerged about 40 miles east in Assumption Parish last August. Assumption Parish residents reported seeing gas bubbles before the sinkhole developed. Scientists attribute the 13-acre sinkhole to a company mining too close to the outer face of a salt dome, causing a sidewall collapse.

Derise remembers when Lake Peigneur was an industrial lake littered with pilings from oil and gas production. He said Texaco pulled 6,000 pilings from the lake after the drilling accident.

“Now this lake is pristine and clean. It’s a beautiful lake, and it’s been damaged enough already and, excuse my expression, raped. It’s time to leave it alone,” he said.

Lobbyists countered in a committee meeting that the natural gas industry is vital to the state’s economy.

After the legislation backed by residents failed on the Senate floor, state Sen. Robert Adley offered to act as a mediator.

Adley, R-Benton, once ran a company that managed natural gas sold to towns and other municipalities at a wholesale cost.

“I reached out to lobbyist friends I’ve known for years and said people need to be reasonable,” he said.

Adley said industry ought to delay action for a year.

Mills said AGL needs to resolve residents’ concerns about the foaming and rice farmers’ fears about salt water intrusion ruining the aquifer.

During a break from floor action in the Senate chamber Thursday, Mills paused to greet Robert Baumann, a lobbyist for a company with ties to the petroleum industry.

“We’re working together,” Mills told Baumann.

Baumann responded with a single word: “Trying.”