About Air and Water

Thursday, April 30, 2009

DEQ: 'Nobody is owning up to it'

By Vickie Welborn and Kelsey McKinney - The Shreveport Times - April 30, 2009


SPRING RIDGE — An unidentified substance that apparently flowed from a natural gas drilling site into a pasture is being eyed as a potential cause of the deaths of 16 head of cattle Tuesday evening, according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

Still more tests are being performed, however, to determine the nature of the substance and what caused the cows to drop dead. Analysis of soil and product samples could take up to a week or more, DEQ Northwest Regional Manager Otis Randle said.

DEQ zeroed in on a contaminated area measured at 20-by-20 yards where a "milky white substance" had pooled in the pasture. It is adjacent to the well that Chesapeake Energy Corp. is drilling on state Highway 169 near the corner of Keatchie-Marshall Road in south Caddo Parish.

Authorities believe the cows ingested the liquid before dying. Tracks went to and from the puddles, a Caddo sheriff's office spokeswoman said.

Chesapeake and its fracing contractor, Schlumberger, have denied knowledge of a chemical release on the site. "Nobody is owning up to it," Randle said late Wednesday.

There is no evidence of contamination beyond the impact area, he added.

"We're continuing to gather information just as the agencies are gathering information and interviewing contractors on site. Until results of the investigation are made, we'll have a much better understanding of what happened," Kevin McCotter, Chesapeake's director of corporate development, said when asked whether an on-site spill had occurred. "We're going to wait and get the results of the investigation. That will give everyone the best understanding of what happened."

Chesapeake on Wednesday afternoon vacuumed the "free product" that was visible, Randle said. Today, a company hired by Chesapeake will take soil samples and excavate the contaminated dirt.

Trailers crisscrossed the property Wednesday removing the dead cattle, for burial on the cattle owner's property in Keithville.

The dead cows were disposed of under the supervision of Louisiana Livestock Brand Commission inspectors, according to Cindy Chadwick, Caddo sheriff's office spokeswoman. They buried "according to directions and guidelines set forth by the Louisiana Dept. of Agriculture and in a manner prescribed by state veterinarian Dr. Mike Barrington," she said.

During documentation, the count was reassessed from 19 to 16. One living cow was taken to LSU School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge. Another living cow that appeared to be less affected was left in the pasture.

Neighbors who live across the highway expressed a desire to know what took place but shrugged off any concerns to their own health and welfare.

"No, I'm not worried yet," 77-year-old Billy Owens said as he got onto his riding lawnmower at his house on Highway 169. His wife, Loraine Owens, 57, and son, Chris Owens, 21, likewise said the only irritations they get from the increased oil and gas activity are the noise, lights and endless stream of saltwater trucks.

"That's what bothers me," Loraine Owens said as a saltwater truck went through the nearby intersection.


Chris Owens believes whatever happened to his neighbor's cows was contained on site. He's not worried about any contamination to a nearby pond where he's been fishing since he was a teenager. He caught fish there Sunday.

"They are making beaucoup of money over there. I don't think they will put their lives in danger," Chris Owens said. "They are walking around over there without masks, so I don't think there is anything harmful over there. Now, if they were in masks and suits and started dropping like flies, then I'd know something was up."

He and his father started noticing the cows falling in the pasture Tuesday afternoon. Neither Chris Owens nor Loraine Owens could recall the name of the property owner.

Sam Irwin, press secretary for the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said initially 18 cows died and two were sick. But one of the sick ones later died. He was uncertain of the status of the other one.

"The calves were moved away and they're fine," Irwin said. Temporary fencing was strung up to separate the living cows from the dead ones.

A state veterinarian who responded to the scene described the affected cows as "lethargic" and "unwilling to move," Irwin said. He did not have a description of the cows' symptoms. Some who witnessed the deaths said the cows were bleeding and foaming at the mouth.

Preliminary results of a necropsy performed on one of the dead animals could be known today. Final results may not be available for a week, Irwin said.
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He would not speculate about what could have caused the deaths. "A bunch of weird stuff can kill cattle," said Irwin, offering as an example a type of grass that cows can't digest, leading to bloating and death.

The sight of the cows falling dead is something William DuBose, of Keithville, will never forget. "It was just horrible."

DuBose, of Keithville, and C.C. Canady, of Keatchie, are members of United Neighbors for Oil and Gas Rights, and they went to Highway 169 after they got word that the cows were dying. DuBose said he had been videotaping the drilling and completions process as part of the group's watchdog efforts.

DuBose also witnessed a man attempt to save an unborn calf by performing a cesarean section on a pregnant cow that had collapsed. Dubose said the calf also died.

DuBose said he and Canady captured on video a yellowish-green substance that was spewing into the air and falling onto the ground. Caddo deputies also said a yellowish-green substance was covering the ground and a Chesapeake employee said it was a chemical used in the fracing process.

DEQ was unable to confirm the presence of any type of yellowish-green substance. "What we ran into today was milky white in color," Randle said Wednesday.

All drilling was suspended Tuesday, and operations will not resume until the all-clear is given, McCotter said. The well, identified as Branch II-H, was in the completions process. McCotter was uncertain when drilling began.

Various types of chemicals are used in the completions, or fracturing process. The water-based fracturing fluids are mixed with proponent materials and pumped under pressure thousands of feet into the ground to the Haynesville Shale formation to get it to release the trapped natural gas.

The additives in the fluid are considered proprietary by each company, but the composition can include chemicals such as surfactants, pH adjusting agent, friction reducer, acid, corrosion inhibitor, iron control and a biocide to prevent algae growth.

McCotter would not guess or comment on speculation that some type of spill may have occurred.
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And asked whether Chesapeake had taken precautions to ensure that all chemicals used on site are contained within the boundaries, McCotter responded, "Once we were notified, the site was isolated. Then the cows were isolated. That was the appropriate action to take "» Chesapeake operates by all of the appropriate state and federal regulations in our drilling and completions."

If the investigation determines that a violation occurred, DEQ will be the agency to enforce environmental laws or regulations, Randle said. Any criminal violations would be handled by the state police or Caddo sheriff's office.

"I'm not saying any type of criminal activity occurred; I'm just saying if it happens they will be ones to enforce that," Randle said.

Chesapeake is cooperating fully with the investigation, authorities said.

All of the hubbub around the corner went unnoticed by James Willis. The 80-year-old was preparing a small garden beside his house on Keatchie-Marshall Road for planting.

"No, not really. I ain't bothered by it," Willis said of any worries related to the cows' deaths.

The drilling yards from his home also is not a bother, he said. "I'm not afraid of it or nothing."

With that, Willis resumed his hoeing.

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