Y-49 group starts petition to stop Connector Sierra Club group cites environmental threats to Chicot Aquifer

by Wynce Nolley

Amid what it calls environmental threats to the groundwater supplied by the Chicot Aquifer, the Acadian Group of the Sierra Club is amassing signatures for its new petition against the proposed I-49 Connector.

The Sierra Club's Y-49 panel included, from left, hydrogeologist and groundwater expert Bruce Darling, Acadian Group Chairman Harold Schoeffler and local environmental lawyer Bill Goodell.
Photo by Wynce Nolley

At its Tuesday Y-49 meeting, the Acadian Group of the Sierra Club began gathering signatures for a petition to stop the proposed I-49 Corridor, citing several environmental threats to the groundwater supplied by the Chicot Aquifer along the project's proposed 5.5-mile route. The aquifer is Lafayette’s main source of drinking water.

The meeting's panelists were Acadian Group Chairman Harold Schoeffler, Austin-based hydrogeologist and groundwater expert Bruce Darling, who has a Ph.D. in geological sciences, and local environmental lawyer Bill Goodell.

Goodell, who represents Lafayette property owners suing Union Pacific Railroad for failing to clean up contamination they say threatens the Chicot Aquifer, told the crowd gathered at the public library Downtown that he has conducted an extensive investigation into the rail yard and found 75 toxic contaminants.

“Many, if not all, of the alignments of this I-49 Connector that are at issue right now with regard to this community go over part of this former rail yard that is, from top to bottom, inside out, full of contaminants,” said Goodell, who was the most outspoken of the panelists.

“There’s a lot we don’t know because the people charged with knowing, informing and protecting the public have not been talking to us,” said Goodell.

According to Goodell, there have been more than 18 assessment reports at more than 12 areas within the former Union Pacific rail yard, which he described as bordering the Evangeline Thruway on the East, Cypress Street on the West, Second Street on the North and Taft Street on the South.

A map of the contaminated area
Photo submitted

The assessments identified the presence of more than 75 toxic and hazardous substances as defined by state and federal environmental regulations, including:

“For over 20 years, there have been assessments of this rail yard and very little cleanup,” said Goodell. “It’s not the kind of stuff you want sitting on top of your Chicot Aquifer, especially when you’ve got new water getting into the Chicot.”

Goodell highlighted chlorinated solvents as a particular problem in the subsurface because of their ability to degrade as well as their ability to break down the chemistry of the soil and allow the migration of contaminants faster and farther than they would occur naturally.

Goodell said he could identify only one shallow water testing point from records by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality off site of the rail yard, which spans about 80 acres. He also discovered that no testing in the shallow groundwater on the adjacent property has been performed to date and no evaluations of the Chicot exist, not even a single test well.

To date, only nine very localized cleanups have occurred, he said. Four of those cleanups were associated with underground storage tanks that were installed after the railroad operations had ceased.

The deepest cleanup was 10 feet, while the areas where water can enter the Chicot come in at about 40 feet, according to Goodell’s research.

Goodell also alleged that state and local officials have known about the contamination and ignored it.

Among the many studies he produced showing that DEQ knew about the contamination and failed to address it was one document from 1992, which was a Phase III Site Investigation of the rail yard prepared for Ray Desormeaux, a consultant for the city of Lafayette, by the Hydro-Environmental Technology environmental consulting firm to evaluate a right of way along the Evangeline Thruway near Sixth Street.

According to the study, Desormeaux found serious contamination, particularly chlorinated solvents, the source of which was identified as an underground drain that was pulling contaminants from several industrial areas into the city’s right of way. Despite these findings, Goodell asserts no cleanup was performed.

“Was the public ever warned?” Goodell asked the audience. “I don’t know. The city knew about this. If the city notified DEQ, then DEQ didn’t do anything about it because I can find no records in DEQ that says that there was a cleanup or even any follow-up investigation.”

Several environmental lawsuits were filed and eventually settled, Goodell said, and in 2008 the consulting firm Sigma Environmental submitted a proposal for a comprehensive assessment of the entire rail yard that included a proposal to do borings and testing. Goodell says that too was ignored.

To further support his assertions, Goodell produced a Jan. 16, 2008 letter from a DEQ geologist to a Lake Charles law firm titled “Receipt and Response to Soil and Groundwater Investigation Work Plan, Former Railroad Facility.” The letter stated that corrective action in the form of excavation in the shell fill zone, or contaminated area, “is not technically or economically feasible to attain since this shell fill is present over the entire site.”

Goodell closed his presentation by referring to Article IX, Section 1, of the 1974 Louisiana Constitution, which affords protection of the state’s natural resources, including air and water, as well as the healthy, safety and general welfare of the people.

“Article IX applies to the DOTD, the LDEQ and all of our government representatives that are involved in this I-49 Connector process,” he said. “Each individual has an obligation not to do as they are told by their supervisor but to make sure that what they do is protecting you and your water. The DOTD and DEQ and those making this decision about constructing this road need to apply sound engineering principles of process safety management and root cause analysis to make sure that everything they do is not going to cause more harm than good.

“The Union Pacific Railroad left us a legacy,” said Goodell. “Our state and local officials now will make the decision in dealing with this process what their legacy will be. A paycheck, a job, a highway project, that is today. Protection and safety of our groundwater is tomorrow and forever.”

To view the petition from Tuesday's meeting, click here.