Residents from New Iberia and the surrounding areas met Thursday at the Sliman Theater to voice their opinion on AGL Resource’s proposed salt dome expansion project before a joint legislative committee.

“If anyone would like Jefferson Island Storage and Hub to receive permitting without in-depth studies of the Chicot Aquifer, raise your hand,” said Nara Crowley.

In response to Crowley, a member of Save Lake Peigneur Inc., no one in the full house at the Sliman Theater raised a hand, testifying to the overall sentiment of the group gathered for the joint legislative hearing, which featured a panel of Louisiana legislators, including state Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, and state Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette.

“I don’t understand why this is even a case,” said Bob Romero, who said he was speaking for residents of the Delcambre area. “How can we look at something that provides 20 parishes with water and not say no?”

The hearing started with a presentation from Richard Hyde, director of government affairs for AGL Resources, on the company’s plans and intentions.

“Safety is our No. 1 value,” said Hyde. “Everything done is with the safety of our employees and neighbors in mind.”

Hyde argued that the caverns the company plans to create beneath Lake Peigneur are a half mile from the nearest resident and the lake provides a natural buffer zone for those communities. He attested to his company’s ability to do the job safely.

That job not only includes the addition of two underground natural gas containment caverns, but also the use of 1.6 billion gallons of water from the Chicot Aquifer over a 36-month period to create those caverns.

In response to waves of data groups like Save Lake Peigneur have gathered, Hyde invited the groups to share that information with the Department of Natural Resources to be used in the decision-making process for permitting.

Hyde went as far as to say if those results show the project will negatively impact the aquifer, then DNR should deny the permit.

But Hyde also said AGL Resources was being unfairly targeted based on the company’s track record and the fact that no other company in the area has come under such scrutiny.

“All we’ve asked for is to be treated fairly …  based on all the facts,” he said.

However, one of the more disconcerting aspects of the issue, said Crowley, is different geologists and other experts giving different opinions.

George Losonsky, Ph.D., has been working with Crowley’s group and said with AGL withdrawing so much additional water, the community should expect to see a gradient reversal leading to saltwater intrusion, which would contaminate the fresh water supply.

Meanwhile, data provided by the U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist John Lovelace seems to suggest that AGL’s project may have little to no impact on the water system at all.

In the face of an hour of public response, which included concerns of clean and ample drinking water, land subsidence and the stability of the domes in existence and those to be made, to name a few, Crowley asked if the risk was worth the benefit without a comprehensive examination of the environmental impact on the aquifer.

Chairman of the Senate Environmental Committee, state Sen. Jean-Paul Morrell, D-New Orleans, said his inclination is to suggest to Gov. Bobby Jindal to assemble a commission or task force to investigate the Chicot Aquifer while the Legislature is out of session. The common concern of the residents who went forward at the meeting was: If the aquifer is damaged, there may be no recovery.

“Good water is cheap until you don’t have it,” said Mayor Pro Tem Freddie DeCourt, whose words were echoed throughout the two-hour meeting. “Why risk it?”

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