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Zurik: No company held accountable after state spends millions on leaking wells threatening aquifer

Updated: May. 26, 2021 at 10:53 PM CDT
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Liquid and gas spews out of wells in DeSoto Parish, part of a declared emergency due to its...
Liquid and gas spews out of wells in DeSoto Parish, part of a declared emergency due to its threat to a nearby aquifer.(WVUE-TV)

DESOTO PARISH, La. (WVUE) - Water and gas bubbling up from the ground in multiple places, evidence of an environmental emergency in northwest Louisiana. The area, in DeSoto Parish, is about forty miles south of Shreveport in a series of wells.

In November 2018, the state declared an emergency because of possible fracking failures that contributed to the environmental disaster. In that declaration, the state expressed concern that natural gas had entered the aquifer.

“You got that much gas pressure in the aquifer and gas can spread horizontally and might find its way to wells people are trying to drink out of then you’ve got a danger to the public,” Patrick Courreges, a spokesperson for the Lousiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said.

The state has spent nearly $4 Million of public money to plug the wells and try to clean up the area, but so far, it has not held any oil company accountable for the massive failure.

“We did not have any real clear responsible party,” Courreges said.

The state said it is unclear which well is responsible for the disaster, but information uncovered in documents from a lawsuit filed by the landowners against several oil companies raises questions about the state’s efforts to hold companies accountable.

Liquid and gas spews out of wells in DeSoto Parish, part of a declared emergency due to its...
Liquid and gas spews out of wells in DeSoto Parish, part of a declared emergency due to its threat to a nearby aquifer.(WVUE-TV)

One of the wells in the area is called the Mason-Hallwood Well. In the emergency declaration issued by the state, they determined it to be “a local pathway for natural gas to enter into and charge the aquifer.”

Hallwood Petroleum used to own the well. Records from the Secretary of State’s Offices in Texas and Louisiana show Chevron acquired Hallwood in 2006.

In internal e-mails from April 2018, employees of DNR said “The Mason well could have a responsible party” adding “Chevron may be a successor to Hallwood Petroleum.”

A DNR employee replied, “That could be a game-changer for at least this site.”

“We did actually reach out to Chevron to say ‘will you assist with this, we think you may be in the chain of title here,’ they came back and said we don’t feel we have an obligation there,” Courreges said.

DNR has the well on its orphaned well list, a list that is reserved for wells where no responsible party can be located. Since Chevron acquired Hallwood Petroleum, critics like environmental watchdog and retired Lieutenant General Russel Honoré conclude Chevron is the last operator of record and is a responsible party, like the state e-mails suggested. Honoré and others think the well should not be considered orphaned and the state should not use public money to plug it, but instead should force Chevron to do so. It is unclear how the well ended up on the state’s orphan list, since Chevron is an active company.

“They will not hold Chevron accountable,” Honoré said.

An attorney representing the landowners who filed suit asked DNR employees about holding Chevron accountable at a recent public meeting. But an attorney for DNR did not provide any details in a response.

“We appreciate you asking those questions,” John Adams said. “This is a portion of the meeting for comments. We were not prepared to answer those questions.”

DNR said this is not a case of the department taking it easy on big oil, but instead they can’t go after Chevron.

“This is DNR with not a great legal position to go at that company. We don’t really -- don’t know how good of an option we have legally to enforce it,” Courreges said. “It wasn’t like we didn’t have the idea to reach out to them, we’re the ones who found them in the chain.”

Patrick Courreges, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.
Patrick Courreges, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.(WVUE-TV)

Courreges said the department would not the ones to say whether Chevron was the responsible party, that would be up to a court. The state makes two points in its argument -- the source of the problem has not been identified, so it does not know who to hold accountable and that the state used the Chevron well for underground access, possibly helping cause the well issues.

But it appears Chevron was concerned enough to attend several meetings about the well. Attorneys for those landowners claim Chevron acted with others “to conceal the true causes of the blowouts” writing Chevron attended several meetings and telephone conferences where Chevron’s attorney implored the group to discuss the blowout problems in terms of mechanical integrity failures as opposed to fracking failures.

At that meeting, Gifford Briggs, the now-former president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, and Tyler Gray, the head of the Louisiana Midcontinent Oil and Gas Association. At the time, both Briggs and Gray also sat on the Oilfield Restoration Commission, the DNR’s public body that oversees the orphan well program. The landowner lawsuit alleges after those meetings, Briggs and Gray then met with DNR and the Governor’s Office to “advance the description of events.”

Honoré calls it one big conflict.

“This quasi board that is supposed to set priorities for abandoned wells is a joke,” Honoré said. “Most of the people on it are either in the oil business or associated with it.”

“They look out for the oil company.”

-Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore

Both LMOGA and LOGA issued a joint statement writing:

The claims about the meeting described in the filing have been grossly mischaracterized and do not represent the facts. Our members remain committed to being good stewards of the environment and responsible partners with the communities in which we live and work.

We asked how the facts were ‘grossly mischaracterized’ and for any documentation that supports that but were told “we disagree with the allegations but cannot elaborate further as this is a matter currently under litigation.”

A spokesperson for DNR said two members of the commission (from LMOGA and LOGA) meeting with the oil company is not up to DNR to regulate.

“What the board members do with their time and who they meet with is --- we just plug wells.”

Patrick Courreges, Department of Natural Resources

Courreges said DNR is not the appointing authority for the members of the commission and that is a decision for the legislature to make.

Three years after the emergency declaration was issued for DeSoto Parish, the $4 Million of public money has helped fix many of the issues. DNR has shrunk the area of investigation from 5,600 acres to around 800. But Lieutenant General Honoré worries contamination and fallout could reach further into the community and asks why the state is not doing more to protect its residents.

“I worry about them,” Honoré said. “I mean this is a function of government to protect the people. But in Louisiana, the function of government is to protect industry – and that’s fundamentally wrong.”

In response to our story, Chevron released the following statement:

“We acquired a company who ceased operations in the area more than two decades ago. Because litigation is pending, at this time we do not plan to further elaborate on the specifics of the case.”

We reached out to the attorneys for the landowners, they had no comment on our story.

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