Hearing set on permit for salt cavern dredging work

The long-delayed permitting process for a proposed expansion of the natural gas storage facility in salt domes beneath Lake Peigneur in Iberia Parish is once again moving forward.

A public hearing on one of the three remaining state permits needed for the controversial project is set for Feb. 20 in New Iberia.

Atlanta-based AGL Resources is proposing to scour out two new salt caverns for natural gas storage at its Jefferson Island Storage & Hub Facility, expanding on the two storage caverns that have been there since the 1990s and more than doubling storage capacity.

Nara Crowley, a Lake Peigneur area resident who has been fighting the expansion, said she hopes state regulators will give the project a closer look in light of the ongoing issues with the large sinkhole believed to be related to a failed salt cavern at Bayou Corne in Assumption Parish.

“It should have an impact,” she said.

AGL, which is not connected to the sinkhole in Assumption Parish, will consider any lessons learned there, said Richard Hyde, managing director of government affairs for AGL.

“We are very cognizant of the situation that is going on in Bayou Corne,” Hyde said.

But he also said past tests have found no problems with the caverns at Lake Peigneur and no problems are expected with the new ones.

The permit at issue in the Feb. 20 public hearing is for dredging work needed to bring equipment into the lake for the cavern expansion work.

AGL needs two other state permits for the project — one to scour out caverns in the salt dome and another to use the scoured caverns for natural gas storage.

The state Department of Natural Resources plans to hold additional public hearings for each of those permits, DNR spokesman Patrick Courreges said.

AGL’s proposed expansion had been on hold since 2006, when then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco called for an extensive environmental study of the project.

AGL filed a lawsuit against the state, and the case ended with a settlement in 2009 that called for additional safeguards but not the environmental review that residents in the area had demanded.

After the settlement, the permitting process started anew.

In addition to questions about safety, Lake Peigneur residents have argued that the up to 3 million of gallons of water a day needed to scour out the salt caverns might draw down the Upper Chicot Aquifer to the point where salt water would push in from farther south and contaminate local wells.

AGL has maintained there would be no significant effect on water quality.

Crowley, the Lake Peigneur area resident, said there is also concern the proposed dredging could disturb an ecosystem that is beginning to show signs of recovery after the 1980 drilling disaster at Lake Peigneur.

A drilling rig on the lake poked through the top of a salt mine, and the entire water body flowed through the opening, filling the mine below.

AGL has stated in permitting documents that the company would use only the minimal amount of dredging needed and would minimize the disturbance of lake-bottom sediment.

Crowley also pointed to mysterious bubbling at Lake Peigneur.

Bubbling also was reported at Bayou Corne before the sinkhole developed there last year, but the bubbling at Lake Peigneur has been much more sporadic.

Still, Crowley said, testing by various government agencies has not identified the cause of the bubbles.

“We don’t know what this bubbling is,” she said.

Hyde said that while the testing has not identified the precise cause of the bubbling, testing has confirmed that “it is not coming from our wells.”

He also said mechanical integrity tests on the existing caverns, which he compared to leak tests, have found no problems.

The public hearing on the permit needed for the dredging work is scheduled for 6 p.m. Feb. 20 at the Willow Wood Park Building, 113 Willow Wood Drive, New Iberia.