One small step for LEAN, one giant leap for the Gulf

by Heather Miller

A state appellate judge orders DEQ to take a hard look at the dumping grounds known as the Gulf of Mexico.

A Louisiana appellate court has ordered the state Department of Environmental Quality to analyze the potential harmful effects of a practice that, surprisingly, hasn't been widely publicized in the wake of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf and decades of coastal land loss: the dumping of waste water that's used in offshore drilling operations.

According to an Associated Press report published on Forbes' website, the state's top environmental watchdog group contends that waste waters from drilling platforms contain radioactive materials, which, over time, seep into marine wildlife and eventually enter the food chain. The Louisiana Environmental Action Network sued DEQ in 2009 when it issued waste water permits to offshore drilling companies without first testing the waste water product for contaminants.

The "produced water," as termed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, must be treated before its dumped into state sea waters along the coast, according to DEQ. But a 1st Circuit Court of Appeals judge has ruled that DEQ "abused its discretion" when it issued the permits in 2009 without further studying what exactly's being tossed off of the 98 drilling operations that will be impacted by the ruling:

There are 98 drilling operations located between Louisiana's coast and 3 miles offshore that are affected by the ruling, said Rodney Mallett, a spokesman for the department.

Mallett said there was no evidence that dumping produced waters in the open sea is harmful. He said the fluids get churned up by the winds, currents and water depths.

The environmental group says the waste water from oil drilling can contain at least 50 chemical and radioactive compounds. It also says some drillers have been known to take waste from drilling operations in federal waters, which lie even farther offshore, and dump them in state waters.

In federal waters, drillers face tough restrictions on produced waters, said Eric Smith of the Tulane Energy Institute. They must treat the waste thoroughly, sometime inject it deep underground or even ship it ashore, he said.

The quality department said it was reviewing the court decision and that it had not decided whether to appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Read more on the court's decision here.