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St. Tammany citizens group urges agencies to halt permitting processes for proposed oil well

By Robert Rhoden, | The Times-Picayune

An attorney for a St. Tammany Parish citizens group has urged the Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Environmental Quality to halt the permitting processes for an oil company that wants to drill near Mandeville, claiming the company’s applications are deficient and violate state and federal regulations. If the agencies do not comply, the lawyer says Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany will seek temporary restraining orders from state and federal courts to stop the permitting review for Helis Oil & Gas Co. of New Orleans

The letters, dated Tuesday (May 13) are the latest development in the ongoing uproar over Helis’ proposal to drill a deep well near Mandeville and use the controversial hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process to extract oil. Many citizens and some elected officials in St. Tammany oppose the project due to concerns about pollution, damage to the aquifer that supplies drinking water, and diminished property values.

Helis has applied to the corps for a wetlands permit and is seeking water quality certification from DEQ in connection with its plan to drill a well on undeveloped property north of Interstate 12 and east of Louisiana 1088.

Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said Wednesday the agency’s regulations are explicit, and, “We’re confident we have a complete application” from Helis.

Greg Langley, press secretary for DEQ, said the department had not yet received the letter. “We’ll certainly look at that and any citizens’ concerns that we receive.”

In her letter on behalf of the citizens group, attorney Marianne Cufone of New Orleans told the corps that its April public notice about the project violates federal law, meaning the existing public comment period has been prematurely initiated. She asks the agency to reissue a legal public notice and restart the public comment period.

Cufone says the public notice should have included Helis’ permit application. “Excluding this information from the original public notice makes this notice invalid, as it is impossible for the public to provide meaningful comment in the absence of the permit application,” she wrote.

The corps also violated the public’s right to provide meaningful comments by requiring citizens to make a Freedom of Information Act request to inspect Helis’ application, Cufone argued.

In her letter to DEQ, Cufone described Helis’ application as “woefully incomplete.” She asks the agency to halt its review of the application and not issue a water quality certification.

In lieu of an application for the certification, Helis submitted to DEQ a duplicate of its application to the corps, which is allowed, Cufone said. But it failed to include the required cover letter.

The application also fails to identify where Helis is incorporated, fails to provide a name of the person primarily responsible for the project, fails to include an estimated schedule for the activities and does not say if there is planned wastewater treatment before water is discharged at the site, Cufone said.

She also alleged that Helis did not follow state regulations in publicizing its proposal in newspapers.

A comment from Helis was not immediately available Wednesday evening.

Regarding citizens’ concerns about its project, Helis has said previously that it has drilled many such wells elsewhere without damaging the environment or aquifers and that it is committed to protecting health, safety and the environment.