CCST response to President Pat Brister’s Press Release dated May 19th, 2014

St. Tammany Parish residents are coming to understand the devastating environmental hazards of fracturing in Louisiana and other states throughout the country and are developing a consensus that the Helis hydraulic fracturing project will most certainly cause, among other environmental perils, irreparable contamination to the parish’s sole aquifer. Accordingly, at several recent public gatherings, residents have expressed to St. Tammany President, Pat Brister, and other parish officials their strong opposition to fracturing.

Yet Ms. Brister, appears tone deaf to resident’s mounting opposition to the Helis drilling project. Perhaps out of her willful ignorance of the poisonous contamination fracturing will cause to the parish’s sole water supply, but more likely as a result of her political patronage to the oil and gas industry and wealthy land owners, Ms. Brister has consistently sought to absolve herself and the St. Tammany Parish Planning and Zoning Commission from all responsibility to prevent the Helis Oil & Gas Company’s proposed hydraulic fracturing project.

In her May 19th Press Release, as she has done consistently in all her public statements, Ms. Brister confidently asserts that parish lawyers have advised her and the parish council that the “State of Louisiana is the grantor and authority for unitization and permitting” the Helis fracturing project, and that the “Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, along with the US Army Corp of Engineers will evaluate” the Helis project and then “determine whether it will proceed.” Thus Ms. Brister has conveniently removed herself and the parish council from responsibility to take any action whatsoever to prevent the drilling project. Indeed, from the moment of its announcement, Ms. Brister’s public comments suggest she accepted the project as a fait accompli.

Still, ever the politico, Ms. Brister declares that the Helis fracturing project does not leave the parish and its residents “powerless to protect our environment, our homes, and our families.” She earnestly assures parish residents that she will do all in her power to “safeguard our beautiful parish, its pristine waters and our coveted lifestyle,” and that the parish council “is not powerless to protect our environment, our homes, and our families.” To that end, Ms. Brister declares she is working with the council to develop ordinances which will provide regulatory oversight of hydraulic fracturing activity in the parish.

Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany (CCST) finds Ms. Brister most recent comments, and her position and actions on the Helis’ fracturing project from the day it was publicly announced, deeply troubling for a couple of reasons.

First, Ms. Brister and the parish council must demonstrate a clearer understanding that the proposed Helis hydraulic fracturing project is by a significant order of magnitude the most serious public policy concern the parish and its residents have ever had to confront. Parish officials are not grappling with the social and economic implications of a big box Wall Mart Store or a garden variety residential real estate development. The scientific factual certainty that fracturing will poison the parish’s sole aquifer leaves no room the kind of political compromise which Ms. Brister and her colleagues seem determine to achieve. There can be no compromise in a zero sum game: either the parish bans hydraulic fracturing and protects its clean water supply or the parish allows the Helis drilling project and lives with the grave consequences of a poisoned water supply. Indeed, if the parish permits Helis to drill even a single well, it will have opened Pandora’s box: in the near future several oil and gas companies will hydraulically frack thousands of wells across the western section of the parish. Helis’ first drill site will eventually turn western St. Tammany Parish into an industrial zone, complete with fleets of trucks, a maze of pipelines, loud noise, befouled air, a poisoned water aquifer, and residents suffering acute fracking related health issues.

Second, residents have grown weary of Ms. Brister and other parish officials’ shameful use of their lawyer’s advice to shield themselves from responsibility and public criticism for the Helis’ project. Though Ms. Brister and other parish officials wear their conservative credentials like a badge of honor, the founder modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, would be appalled at their lazy effort to hide behind their lawyer’s advice. Burke said, “It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do; but what humanity, reason, and justice, tells me I must do.”

In the spirit of Burke’s sentiment, CCST instructed its attorneys, Marianne Cufone and William Quigley, to evaluate the wetlands-mitigation permit application Helis filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) and the Department of Environmental Quality (the DEQ). CCST’s attorneys found that Helis’ DEQ application failed to meet a number of material legal requirements, and that the public notice of Helis’ application provided by the Corps does not provide enough information to give the public a clear understanding of the nature and magnitude of Helis’ proposed activities. As a result, CCST’s attorneys sent cease-and-desist letters to the DEQ and the Corps. Absent an adequate response, CCST attorneys filed a motion in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana seeking a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) and Preliminary Injunction against the Corps, and a motion in the 19th Judicial District State Court seeking a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction against the DEQ.

Now I am gratified to announce the outcome of CCST’s legal challenges filed last week on the first ever hydrofracking operation in St. Tammany Parish. Both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality agreed to provide the public with a full permit application from the Helis Oil & Gas Company, which seeks a permit to dredge and fill wetlands, and a corresponding waterquality certification from the state for its project. Additionally, the agencies will re-initiate the public comment period for another 20 days, until mid-night on June 16, 2014, as requested by the CCST lawsuits.

These meaningful victories will hold Helis to the letter of the law and gain valuable time for parish residents to learn more about the environmental consequences of shale fracturing and to consider their full range legal options. Notwithstanding Ms. Brister’s statements to the contrary, CCST strongly believes that parish residents have a number of compelling legal arguments to ban hydraulic fracturing in St. Tammany Parish.

A generation ago the tobacco industry spent untold millions of dollars on deceptive public advertising, on political campaigns to influence the votes of influential political leaders, and on junk scientific studies, undertaken by so-called experts, to convince citizens that cigarettes are not harmful to human health. For many years the industry’s propaganda efforts created public doubt and confusion about the harmful effects of cigarette smoking. In the fullness of time, however, as hundreds of thousands of people were afflicted with cancer and other mortal tobacco related illnesses, citizens came to understand the devastating effects cigarette smoking has on human health. Today the tobacco industry’s advertising campaigns, political patronage, and junk science seem preposterous to us, even darkly laughable.

Now, the oil and gas industry is trying to convince the general public, and the residents of St. Tammany Parish, that hydraulic shale fracturing is not environmentally hazardous to the air we breathe and the water we drink. Like the tobacco industry a generation ago, the energy industry is spending obscene amounts of money with lobbyists, on public advertising campaigns, on the political campaigns of federal, state, and local political leaders, and on junk science undertaken by energy industry shills to convince us that shale fracturing can be performed without material harm to the natural environment and human health.

The disastrous environmental consequences of hydraulic shale fracturing offers a rare point of political convergence for liberals and conservatives: they should all want to breathe clean air and drink clean water.

We must not live for a generation at our environmental peril: we never want to cast our eyes upon a ravished, desolate, and industrial St. Tammany Parish landscape; we never want to mourn the loss of our social and cultural heritage; and parish residents especially never want to suffer the plague of mortal illnesses which will surely accompany widespread hydraulic fracturing . To avoid environmental calamity, we must shine a light on the most impartial and intellectually rigorous scientific research on shale fracturing. This is the best and only honest way to help parish residents understand that claims made by the energy industry about the environmental safety of shale fracturing are false.

Finally, in recognition of the serious environmental damage hydraulic fracturing has caused to the land, air, water, and physical health of citizens in many communities throughout the country, we must insist our parish officials act much more intelligently and aggressively, than they have to date, to protect our vital health and environmental interests. This means they must use every available political and legal resource at their disposal to ban hydraulic fracturing in St. Tammany Parish. If they fail parish residents in this solemn public duty, they should know voters will sweep every last one of them out of office at the next election.

Rick Franzo’ / President
CCST Legal Committee