St. Tammany group seeks halt to well permitting process

Making good on a pledge earlier this week to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany on Thursday asked federal and state judges to halt the process of issuing a wetlands permit to Helis Oil & Gas, which plans to drill an oil well in St. Tammany Parish, according to a statement from Rick Franzo of the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany.

In a 39-page filing in federal court in New Orleans, CCST’s attorney, Marianne Cufone, said that by forcing members of the public to file a formal Freedom of Information Act request with the Corps to view Helis’ permit application, the government had denied the public information it needed to comment on the proposal.

The filing followed up on Cufone’s letter two days earlier to the Corps in which she threatened to go to federal court if the Corps did not suspend the permitting process within 24 hours.

Wednesday, Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said he was satisfied that Helis’ application was sufficient and he did not anticipate the Corps would delay acting on the permit. Rather, he said, CCST’s letter would be collected along with other public comments — the deadline for which passed Thursday — and considered along with the entire package.

He said the Corps would alleviate one of Cufone’s complaints by putting Helis’ entire permit application online by Thursday afternoon.

Boyett said Thursday he could not comment on pending litigation.

A similar letter sent to LDEQ alleged that the water-certification application Helis filed with the state agency as part of its wetlands-permit application was incomplete and therefore invalid. Cufone also pointed out that the application number on the LDEQ application did not correspond to the number on the Corps application, a mistake a Corps spokesman called a “clerical error.”

As in her letter to the Corps, Cufone gave the state agency 24 hours to suspend action on the Helis application. When that didn’t happen, Cufone filed a motion for a temporary restraining order in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge. That filing was not immediately available.

Wednesday, an LDEQ spokesman said the CCST letter was being reviewed by the department’s legal staff. Requests for comment Thursday were not returned.

This latest salvo in the fight to block Helis from sinking a 13,000-foot-deep “fracking” oil well in St. Tammany moves the battleground from public meetings and social media to courtrooms, where it may be more genteel but no less emotional. Thus far, angry residents have thronged any opportunity to get their message out, while Helis has mostly stayed out of the fray, preferring instead to meet with small groups for what it terms “cooperative” dialogue or else to issue written statements.

Last week, the company agreed to delay for 30 days a unitization hearing before the state commissioner of conservation.

The hearing, originally scheduled for this week, would set the boundaries of the area from which oil or gas may be extracted, but it would not take into account possible environmental impacts or public sentiment. However, a unit order — the positive outcome of a unitization hearing — is necessary before the company can apply for a drilling permit.

This week, parish officials announced a “compromise” with Helis in which the company agreed to complete testing of samples taken from a vertical well before beginning a horizontal shaft or using “fracking” techniques. That testing could take three to four months, and if it shows the shale beneath the well would not produce a commercially viable amount of oil, the company vowed to plug the well and abandon it.

Before the “compromise,” Helis still intended to conduct the testing but to simultaneously begin drilling the well’s horizontal shaft.

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter @faimon.