Two years after several environmental groups filed lawsuits, a Houston energy company has finally agreed to clean up mercury contamination around its natural gas wells in the Monroe, Louisiana area. EnerVest Operating LLC will decontaminate land in three parishes (Ouachita, Union and Morehouse) and replace about 400 leaky mercury meters the company uses to gauge well and pipeline pressure. The settlement was approved last month by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.
The settlement comes more than two years after EnerVest was sued for allowing mercury to seep into the land surrounding its wells in northeast Louisiana. The company failed to properly dispose of mercury and clean up spills from meters, according to the lawsuit filed by the Louisiana Audubon Council, the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. Nor did EnerVest upgrade its meters to more environmentally friendly models that have become “the industry standard,” according to the groups.
The Monroe area has been plagued with toxic levels of mercury in recent years, sparking state regulators to issue health warnings for Bayou DeSiard, Black Bayou Lake and the Ouachita River, where contaminated fish have been found. As we have reported in previous issues, ingesting mercury can cause neurological and kidney disorders, especially among children. Pregnant women can pass the substance to fetuses, sometimes causing developmental problems for exposed infants. The environmental groups launched a shoe-leather investigation to see if they could link the high levels of mercury in Monroe to the prevalence of manometers, or mercury meters, in the area’s natural gas fields. A single manometer contains as much as seven pounds of liquid mercury, and the devices are prone to leaks.
The environmental groups reported EnerVest’s mercury spills in late 2006 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, but the agencies failed to “redress these violations,” requiring the groups to take legal action. Under the settlement, EnerVest must:
• replace all of its roughly 400 mercury meters with dryflow meters, which do not use mercury, by December 31, 2010;
• Remove mercury that has tainted residential and floodplain areas by the end of 2015;
• must have remediated 800 contaminated sites by 2019.
• use a higher standard than the state’s rule requiring companies to leave behind no more than 2.3 parts per million of mercury; and
• for wetlands, leave just one part per million of mercury.
The settlement has been hailed as an important victory by the Audubon Council and one that hopefully will encourage the State of Louisiana to crack down on gas producers that continue to use mercury meters despite the availability of cleaner technology. Louisiana has a voluntary mercury clean-up program for gas producers, but does not fine polluters or require them to replace old manometers. Frankly, I have seen very few “voluntary compliance” programs that work well for people and the environment.
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