Lake Peigneur bill defeated in Senate

For his initial pitch on legislation aimed at curtailing oil and gas activity at Lake Peigneur, state Sen. Fred Mills turned the Senate chamber into a movie theater.

Mills, R-St. Martinville, showed grainy, decades-old news footage of the water draining in a violent whirlpool after a drilling accident in 1980.

The images failed to convince the state Senate to embrace Mills’ Senate Bill 200 to stop the expansion of natural gas storage underneath the lake.

Mills made another attempt Tuesday, this time relying on his own words. He asked legislators to side with the lake’s residents instead of the dozen lobbyists hired by the “oil and gas boys.”

The result was the same.

The Senate rejected SB200 with 17 members voting in favor of it and 19 voting against it. The bill needed 20 favorable votes to advance to the House.

At issue is the Atlanta-based AGL Resources’ plans to expand an underground natural gas storage operation in the salt dome beneath Lake Peigneur, which straddles Vermilion and Iberia parishes.

Residents oppose the expansion because of concerns that instability in the salt dome could result in a catastrophe similar to the 15.1-acre sinkhole that forced some Bayou Corne residents out of their homes in Assumption Parish.

The expansion would occur more than three decades after a drilling rig pushed through the top of the salt mine and punched a hole in the bottom of Lake Peigneur. The lake drained in a whirlpool that also sucked in barges.

AGL has been trying to expand its operation at Lake Peigneur for years. Then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco called for an extensive environmental study in 2006, sparking a lawsuit that resulted in an agreement for additional safeguards.

The company still needs two additional permits to start the expansion.

Mills’ bill initially would have prevented the expansion from taking place.

After the legislation failed in a floor vote earlier this month, AGL offered residents a compromise. The company said it would 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.

Save Lake Peigneur’s board of directors rejected AGL’s offer Monday night. The group, which represents the lake’s 4,000 residents, determined the offer was not in members’ best interest.

Nara Crowley, president of Save Lake Peigneur, said residents want a federal environmental impact statement, a scientific ultrasound of the salt dome and a clear determination on what is causing the foaming.

“Bayou Corne’s disaster is a result of failed regulations of the state of Louisiana. We will never feel safe until all our questions are answered,” Crowley said.

Duane A. Bourne, spokesman for AGL, said it is disappointing that residents rejected the company’s proposal.

“The sole purpose of the SB200 legislation is to unfairly deny AGL Resources the opportunity to go through the regulatory process in a fair and equitable manner — we are just seeking the same right that other similar companies in the state have received,” Bourne said by email.

With the residents urging him to push forward with SB200, Mills amended the bill Tuesday to call for a five-year halt in natural gas storage expansion at the lake.

“All we’re saying is we want a five-year break, and for a company called AGL in Atlanta I think it’s OK,” Mills said.

State Sen. Rick Ward III, who represents Bayou Corne, urged his colleagues to embrace the bill.

Ward, D-Maringouin, said Mills just wants to take care of his community.

“I don’t make a habit of getting up and speaking on other people’s bills, but I have to rise in support of this one,” he said.

State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, said he had several problems with the bill. The biggest issue, he said, is that the bill would not prevent the type of drilling that caused the 1980 accident.

“If you want to fix the problem, face the problem straight up,” Adley said.

Mills thanked Adley, who lives in north Louisiana, for caring about the people of Iberia and Vermilion parishes.

He said the bill would help residents even if there are structural flaws in the language.

“Since Bayou Corne, they’re scared,” Mills said.

With the session ending June 6, Mills is short on time to rally legislators to his cause.