Two years after several environmental groups sued, a Houston energy company has agreed to clean up mercury contamination around its natural gas wells in the Monroe area.
EnerVest Operating LLC will decontaminate land in Ouachita, Union and Morehouse parishes and replace about 400 leaky mercury meters the company uses to gauge well and pipeline pressure, according to a settlement approved last week by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.
The deal 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,” the groups said.
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. 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.
“You could drive along the road, and you could go to the meters and you could see mercury under them,” said Barry Kohl, president of the Louisiana Audubon Council. “You could see mercury accumulation about the size of a quarter or a 50-cent piece that would be on the ground.”
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,” spurring the groups to take legal action, according to the 2007 lawsuit.
William Page, EnerVest’s vice president and portfolio manager, said the company inherited the manometers when it purchased gas properties in the Monroe in 1998. He said the company, which controls 4,000 gas wells in the area, was already working with the state to address problems when the environmental groups sued.
“The settlement will accelerate EnerVest’s efforts of remediating those sites,” Page said. “It’s a problem we did not create, but it’s one we are willing as a corporate citizen to take in our efforts to clean up the environment.”
Under the settlement, EnerVest must replace all of its roughly 400 mercury meters with dryflow meters, which do not use mercury, by Dec. 31, 2010. The company must also remove mercury that has tainted residential and floodplain areas by the end of 2015. EnerVest must have remediated 800 contaminated sites by 2019.
EnerVest has also agreed to use a higher standard than the state’s rule requiring companies to leave behind no more than 2.3 parts per million of mercury. For wetlands, EnerVest would leave just one part per million of mercury, while other areas could have as much as 1.5 parts per million.
The project will cost the company “several million dollars,” said Page.
Kohl, of the Audubon Council, called the settlement an important victory that he hoped would encourage the state 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, said Bill Schramm, a geologist with LDEQ.
The program has resulted in the removal of mercury from about 4,000 contaminated sites since the mid-1990s, according to Schramm. The department plans to contact other gas producers and encourage them to replace old mercury meters with better technology.
“We’re compiling the information on the operators and trying to get a tally on the locations and the number of meters,” said Schramm, who could not provide an estimate of how many manometers are operating in the state.
Kohl expressed concern about the lack of consequences for mercury polluters and said he hopes the state will consider a stricter policy in the future.
“Any kind of enforcement that’s voluntary doesn’t work,” he said. “Very few companies come forward to say they are going to clean it up.”
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