By Maddie Duhon
Residents of Iberia Parish living on the banks of Lake Peigneur are faced with uncertainty about the safety of their homes as AGL Resources, Inc., a natural gas company, pressures Louisiana to expand and add two natural gas storage caverns under Lake Peigneur in the Jefferson Island Salt Dome.
The 4,000 local residents are concerned with salt-water intrusion into the Chicot aquifer and safety issues for those living within a one-mile radius of Lake Peigneur. AGL Resources, Inc. has been using the underground salt domes as storage and hub facilities for pressurized natural gas since 1994, with two caverns currently in use. Many local residents oppose the drilling more caverns under the lake.
“There was no doubt in my mind that the fresh water aquifer was in danger and that something needed to be done,” said Nara Crowley, previous president of Save Lake Peigneur Inc., a nonprofit group that has been fighting the expansion of natural gas storage at Lake Peigneur for almost a decade. “Taking no action to save this natural resource for future generations is unacceptable. As a result I became actively committed with fellow residents to protect our lives, drinking water and environment.”
To create another dome, AGL Resources, Inc. has to drill deep under the surface and pump in millions of gallons of water to dissolve the salt. This water is then removed, leaving space to store natural gas. This fresh water will be taken from the Chicot aquifer, the primary source of drinking water for 17 parishes, and turned into salt water through this process. Residents are worried about the potential negative effects of taking a significant amount of water from the Chicot aquifer. It supplies drinking water for a large area of Acadiana, including the Teche area. Three million gallons of drinking water and two million gallons of non-potable drinking water will be withdrawn daily. This large suction is an issue referred to as a cone of depression, which is the pulling of salt water in. As water is removed from the aquifer, salt water from the Gulf might intrude.
Scientific experts have discovered a risk of salt-water intrusion into the Chicot Aquifer if the new storage caverns are created. According to United States Geological records, a 10-foot drop occurred in the aquifer water level within four years of creating the original two caverns, the same amount that had previously taken 50 years to deplete.
In 2006, unusual bubbling lasting from 20 minutes to more than 24 hours, described as long zigzag lines up to 3,000 feet long and 15 feet wide, ran across the lake surface. No one knows the cause of this strange phenomenon.
“I have lived on the lake for more than six years. I am concerned for the water quality if this project is approved, stability of the salt dome after more drilling, failure of structure of the two existing caverns, a sink hole, and any other possibility,” said Cherie Lecompte, a local resident. “Delcambre has hundreds of residents and two schools within a two-mile radius of the lake. AGL Resources, Inc.’s operations should not be allowed to proceed in a residential area. There are too many dangers and possibilities.”
Many years ago, a Texaco oil rig accidentally drilled into the salt mine under the lake, creating a whirlpool that sucked in Texaco’s drilling platform, 11 barges and 65 acres of terrain. So much water drained into the caverns that the flow of the Delcambre Canal, which usually empties into the Vermilion Bay, was reversed, resulting in the tallest waterfall ever in the state of Louisiana at 164 feet, as the lake refilled with salt water. This permanently affected the ecosystem of the lake, as saltwater replaced the freshwater and tremendously increased the water’s depth.
Residents are fearful of another freak catastrophe if more caverns are created.
For AGL Resources, Inc. to build these new caverns, a permit from the state is required. Recently Judge Keith Comeaux of the 16th Judicial District Court based in New Iberia reversed the decision of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources to issue a Coastal Use Permit to construct and operate two natural gas storage caverns in the Jefferson Island Salt Dome under Lake Peigneur. Attorneys for the state Department of Natural Resources have not yet decided whether to appeal this ruling.
“The residents of Delcambre love the lake. There are always people using it for recreational purposes,” said Lecompte. “My favorite part of living on the lake is the tranquility of it on a cool, sunny day, the birds flying overhead and the fish jumping. It’s our own paradise!”