Dozens of oystermen and coastal residents spoke out at a public hearing Thursday night, arguing that the state shouldn’t grant an oil and gas company a permit to dredge wetlands around a drilling site near Port Sulfur.
But they can’t stop Hilcorp Energy Co. of Houston from dredging. The company already cut the channel back in January 2016, when it moved a barge to a drilling site.
A fisherman recorded video of the barge churning up mud as several tugboats pushed it into place. The company first denied that it had done any damage, but now it’s applying for an “after the fact” coastal use permit for “unauthorized dredging activity.”
In the Belle Chasse Auditorium, members of the Louisiana Oystermen Association and their lawyers urged the Department of Natural Resources not to grant the permit to a “serial law-breaker,” as a lawyer for the association put it.
“Hilcorp is a bad operator in coastal Louisiana,” said Michael Roberts, president of the Association of Family Fishermen. “They’ve done hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to these people’s [oyster] leases, if not more. It’s time that every future permit for Hilcorp is done with the utmost scrutiny so that they start obeying the law.”
A spokesman for Hilcorp did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
In late January 2016, Plaquemines Parish fisherman Gleason Alexis recorded video of Hilcorp vessels using a technique called “prop-washing” to move a drilling rig barge through his family’s oyster lease at Lake Washington, about 10 miles southwest of Port Sulfur.
“Prop-washing” is a blunt method of moving a barge through shallow water. Tugboats push and pull the barge forward, forcing it to plow through the muddy bottom.
This practice is disruptive and potentially disastrous for nearby oyster reefs, which could be smothered by sediment stirred up by the tugboat propellers. Prop-washing also churns up the water bottom, making it more difficult, if not impossible, to plant new oyster reefs, according to a lawsuit filed by the association against Hilcorp.
This type of dredging requires permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Office of Coastal Management, which is part of the Department of Natural Resources. Hilcorp didn’t have a permit from either.
The Louisiana Oystermen Association reported the incident to state regulators the day after the fisherman observed the barge, according to the lawsuit. A field agent for the Department of Natural Resources went out and concluded “a prop-washing ‘cut’ of bottom material may have occurred,” which hadn’t been authorized.
By June, the state had taken no further action, so the Oystermen Association decided to take enforcement into its own hands. It filed a lawsuit to force the company to follow the federal Clean Water Act.
“The Clean Water Act allows for a citizen suit where government fails to act,” said Joel Waltzer, the association’s lawyer in the case. “It’s as if you’re the EPA.”
Hilcorp originally denied any wrongdoing. A company representative told the Department of Natural Resources that the barge had a maximum draft of four feet, according to the lawsuit.
But in its permit application, Hilcorp said the barge had a draft of seven and a half feet, deeper than the surrounding water. The company said the barge was moved at high tide to minimize damage to the water bottom.
Hilcorp’s permit asks for permission to dredge about 1,700 cubic yards of mud. The Oystermen Association says that’s a fraction of what they actually moved.
Although the public hearing was held for this specific permit, fishermen used the opportunity to air wider grievances against the company.
“You need to make it clear to Hilcorp that if they don’t get their act together, they’re going to start losing their coastal use permits,” said Oystermen Association lawyer Michael Brown. ”This is Hilcorp’s last second chance.”