Mary Tutwiler

Lake Peigneur bill final vote in House tonight

by Mary Tutwiler

The final showdown between environmental group Save Lake Peigneur and AGL Resources takes place on the floor of the Legislature today. AGL has applied to the state Department of Natural Resources for a permit to scour out two additional caverns in the salt dome beneath Lake Peigneur, in Iberia Parish, to store compressed natural gas. Residents surrounding the lake are vehemently opposed to any further industrial activity in the dome or the lake.

Senator Troy Hebert, who represents Iberia Parish, wrote SB 754 to prevent the Commissioner of Conservation in the Department of Natural Resources from issuing a permit that allows the use or withdrawal of 3 million gallons or more of water per day from the Chicot Aquifer that will be injected into the subsurface in a parish whose population is more than 70,000 or less than 75,000. The population numbers are specific to Iberia Parish, and the bill, by prohibiting use of the ground water, would effectively shut down AGL’s plans.

Hebert says he expects clear sailing today, when the bill, which “blew out of the Senate without a dissenting vote,” comes up on the House floor for passage. If passed, it only needs the governor’s signature to become law. “I feel good about it,” Hebert says. “What we’re getting is a lot of people saying ‘I want to protect my aquifer too.’ There’s boys up in north Louisiana who are realizing how precious that is. As Chairman of the Environment Committee, we are certainly going down that road, we’re going to be looking at our water resources in the state.”

Ginger Sawyer, vice-president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry says her organization will be lobbying against the bill--not at the request of AGL, but because she says the state already has a groundwater management policy in place. In 2001, she says, the state adopted the Groundwater Resources Management law, Title 38, which charges the Conservation Commissioner with protecting the state’s aquifers. “Groundwater needed for human consumption and public health and safety shall have the highest priority,” says Sawyer, quoting the statute. “So we feel it’s a good policy we have in place. “The Lake Peigneur issue is very delicate, very emotional,” she continues. “It’s a public relations nightmare for anyone because there are people  who are genuinely personally involved in it. However Senator Hebert’s bill directly affects the statewide policy. We would go back to that patchwork of exclusions and ‘my turf over your turf, and my aquifer over your aquifer.’ We need to manage our resources as a statewide resource. The state commissioner already has the authority to do all the things to prevent waste and what he (Hebert) is doing is just saying the commissioner can’t do his job in Iberia Parish.”

Iberia Parish chemist and environmental consultant Wilma Subra, who has been involved in writing the state's conservation and environmental laws for decades, says that while the groundwater resources law is designed to protect the aquifer, there is no provision to restrict the quantity of water withdrawn from an aquifer. “Troy’s bill protects Iberia from the AGL proposal, which will withdraw millions of gallons from the Chicot and waste it. It’s not something that the commissioner can do right now. This bill gives him another tool to protect drinking water,” she says.

Senate Bill 754 is one of the last bills on today’s House docket, and probably won’t be heard until late tonight.