Some Acadiana residents fear potential for sinkhole ‘disaster’

Opponents of expanding the underground natural gas storage facility under Lake Peigneur asked state regulators on Wednesday to carefully review what they argue has the potential to become another disaster on the scale of the growing sinkhole in Assumption Parish.

Comments at a public hearing on the project also harkened back to 1980, when a drilling rig pushed through the top of salt mine under Lake Peigneur and opened a hole that consumed the entire water body.

“This lake, this region, these resources have sacrificed enough,” state Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, told state Department of Natural Resources officials at the hearing. “... Protect the lake. It has suffered enough.”

Mills was joined in opposition by residents in the area, other public officials and representatives from the Sierra Club, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.

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 existing two storage caverns there.

AGL has pointed to a record of no problems since the facility opened in the 1990s and maintains that the proposed expansion has been carefully studied to minimize environment impacts and ensure safe operations.

The proposed expansion has met strong opposition and is now beginning its second permitting attempt. The project was halted in 2006 when then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco called for an extensive environmental study of the project.

AGL responded with a lawsuit against the state that was settled in 2009 with some additional requirements, but not the environmental study that Blanco had sought.

The permitting process is moving forward again at a time when there are near daily news reports about the problems created by a large sinkhole related to a failed salt cavern at Bayou Corne in Assumption Parish.

“Coastal management can stop another disaster by denying this permit,” said Save Lake Peigneur President Nara Crowley, referring to DNR’s Office of Coastal Management.

Crowley and other residents cited a host of potential safety and environmental concerns and pointed to the continued bubbling at the lake.

Bubbling also was reported at Bayou Corne before the sinkhole developed there last year.

The bubbling at Lake Peigneur has been more sporadic, but Crowley said there have been 79 documented instances of bubbling at the lake in recent years, including three in the past week.

AGL Managing Director of Government Affairs Richard Hyde said in interview earlier this month that testing has not identified the precise cause of the bubbling but has confirmed that “it is not coming from our wells.”

Crowley has questioned the thoroughness of testing done so far and said the critical issue is that there is currently no explanation for the bubbling.

Opponents of the project have also raised concerns about how dredging for the project could impact water quality at the scenic lake and whether the up to 3 million of gallons of water a day needed to scour out the new salt caverns might draw down groundwater to the point where salt water would push in from farther south and contaminate local wells.

“Y’all are messing with our drinking water and the places where we live,” said Iberia Parish Councilman Marty Trahan, who represents the Lake Peigneur area.

AGL has maintained there would be no significant effect on water quality in the lake or in water wells.

The subject of Wednesday’s public hearing was a permit 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.