Lafourche seeks relief from on-shore effects of drilling

Lafourche seeks relief from on-shore effects of drilling

Allowing oil and gas drilling off Florida’s coast could be a matter of life or death for residents of Lafourche Parish if the federal government doesn’t take steps to improve the highway leading to Port Fourchon, residents told the federal Minerals Management Service on Wednesday night.

The planning meeting held in Larose was designed to gather public comments about how the MMS should study an area known as 181 off Florida’s panhandle before releasing it to be leased. The 580,000 acres in the area are scheduled to be leased in March 2008.

Drilling in the area has been controversial in Florida, which doesn’t allow drilling off its coast. But for the 12 people who spoke at Wednesday night’s meeting, the bone of contention wasn’t the drilling, but the land traffic that serves the drilling.

Port Fourchon services about 90 percent of the deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, said Paula Schouest, who represented Port Fourchon on Wednesday night.

Activities from the lease sale in area 181 will also likely be serviced through Port Fourchon, said Caryl Fagot, a spokeswoman for the MMS.

“In itself, the impacts of this additional lease area will be minimal, but as part of a cumulative impact that has been well documented for over a decade, it is substantial,” Schouest told the MMS.

Traffic to the port has steadily increased in recent years, said Henri Boulet, executive director of the LA 1 Coalition, told the MMS. The coalition is a nonprofit group lobbying for money to improve the highway.

“Within the last twelve months, we have seen between 1,200 and 1,300 trucks per day traveling southbound with equipment destined for the Outer Continental Shelf, many of these extra-wide and overweight loads that have proven deadly in these abnormal crash-rating areas. In one month’s time within the last year we experienced 3 deaths in one stretch of highway,” Boulet said.

There have been 20 accident-related fatalities in the past nine months, said Larry Weidel, spokesman for the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Louisiana 1, the only road leading to Port Fourchon, is two lanes in many places.

Construction of a new fixed-span bridge at Leeville has started. That is scheduled to be completed by December 2009. The Department of Transportation just signed a $137 million contract to widen and elevate 5.3 miles of highway from Leeville south to Port Fourchon, Boulet said. That span is set to be completed in 2011.

But millions more are needed to elevate and widen the highway from U.S. 90 to the port.

It’s not the first time that Lafourche officials have asked the Minerals Management Service to address the impact of drilling services on Lafourche.

However, the agency has said it doesn’t hold the purse strings to fix any problems. Schouest urged the MMS to show leadership, which could result in the area getting federal money. Boulet was more specific in his suggestions. He told the MMS that the agency should spell out in its environmental study that although expanded drilling impacts Lafourche, the agency has no money to fix the problems.

“With this wording, and a push by the industry, the U.S. Congress can recognize in a federal document that one of their own agencies does indeed have a current impact to address, but has no fiscal authority to move forward in mitigating that impact,” he said Wednesday night.

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