Lafayette citizens meet over concerns about alleged water well contamination

  • While city council members are MIA

Lafayette’s drinking water supply is under threat of contamination from dangerous industrial chemicals, and a group of residents want to know why neither the local government, nor the state government, is willing to do anything about it.

Concerned citizens and local members of the environmental non-profit Sierra Club met a few weeks ago to discuss how to get local government involved in the contested issue.

The city of Lafayette gets its drinking water from the Chicot Aquifer, a stretch of water-holding geological formations running underground beneath stretches of the city. The Chicot Aquifer is particularly shallow in parts of the city, meaning that the aquifer formation is located less than 100 feet below ground level, some areas are as shallow as 37 feet deep — though water wells are tapped at much greater depths of 400–500 ft to supply Lafayette’s drinking water.

The bad news is that an old Union-Pacific rail yard sits directly atop the aquifer in downtown Lafayette, near the Rosa Parks Depot. That old rail yard has been designated as a hazardous waste site by EPA, due to contamination from the railroad. The rail yard soil is contaminated with industrial chemical compounds such as p-DCB, benzene, lead and chlorinated hydrocarbons.

“Contaminants don’t have to migrate a long way to get to 40 ft below the surface,” said William Goodell, a local environmental lawyer who has brought a case against Union Pacific in hopes of getting the railroad company to clean up its mess. Goodell was speaking at the public meeting held by the Acadiana chapter of Sierra Club at the downtown library in Lafayette.

Prevailing wisdom in the area is that the Chicot Aquifer is protected by a layer of clay that has formed between the ground level and the delicate aquifer. Goodell doesn’t buy that line of reasoning. “In a word, it’s baloney,” he said.

In fact, some of the water wells nearest to the rail yard have already tested positive for those toxic chemicals that are found in the rail yard, according to LUS water well data obtained by Goodell. “The p-DCB [Para-dichlorobenzene] has been detected in the groundwater from the LUS supply wells since 2008,” he said. “The levels in 2012 show that three of the supply wells closest to where the rail yard is got hits [for contaminants] and some of those showed up again in 2015. There’s another hit in 2010. That means these contaminants are getting sucked into the Lafayette drinking water supply system.”

Many of the chemicals in question — both those found in the contaminated soils of the rail yard, and those found in the LUS water wells — are classified by the EPA as carcinogenic. While the levels of chemical compounds found in the water wells are still well within the safety allowance set by Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the contaminants found in ground water and soil samples in the rail yard itself are quite high, Goodell claims.

“The levels of some of these contaminants in the rail yard are frightening,” He said. Benzene was found at levels of 88 parts per billion (ppb) at the rail yard. The DEQ’s risk evaluation/correction action program (RECAP) screening standards for Benzene is 5 ppb. Acetone was tested at 407,000 ppb at the rail yard, while the DEQ’s safety level is 100 ppb; and lead levels found in groundwater at the rail yard are well above what’s considered safe by the DEQ. Lead contamination was found in the rail yard at 160 ppb, while DEQ’s safety level is 15 ppb.

“These are serious numbers. We’re not just talking about a little bit of something,” Goodell said. “These shouldn’t be in the soil, they shouldn’t be in the groundwater, they shouldn’t be around people.”

This isn’t the first time the rail yard has come under investigation. Past legal attempts at de-contamination of the site have been undertaken in a piecemeal fashion, in part because of the way the city has developed around the 40-acre rail yard in question. “Much of this rail yard area north of Johnston street has never been investigated,” Goodell said, except for a section of Chestnut street, next to Salvation Army. It’s possible that more areas of the older rail yard are just as contaminated. “Let’s find out where all the contamination is, and let’s map it so we can come up with a plan to clean it,” he said.

To make matters worse, the proposed I-49 connector would be constructed as an elevated highway right through the hazardous waste site. That’s brought a renewed sense of urgency in getting local officials involved in cleaning up the hazardous waste. According to Watermark Alliance’s Kim Goodell (who is also William Goodell’s wife), construction of the 1–49 connector would require driving pilings down through the contamination in the ground and possibly right into the top of the Chicot Aquifer. “That’s an obvious threat when you know what they’ve already found there,” she said.

The Acadiana Sierra Club and concerned eco-minded residents have tried to raise the issue with local officials. But their concerns have fallen on deaf ears. “They’ve sat on the information for two decades, done nothing, and now it’s in the aquifer,” Kim Goodell said. “Why didn’t we clean it up 20 years ago? You can’t let this stuff just sit there, especially when the aquifer is just 38 feet below. We have to get together as a community and demand more.”

Kim Goodell said residents are frustrated that local government officials are so unwilling to investigate the contamination and implement a clean-up process. “We trust the powers at be to protect our water,” said Kim Goodell. “This is about leadership, not lawsuits. We don’t want lawsuits.”

One Lafayette resident, Martial Broussard, said he personally invited city council members and other leaders in the community to attend the Sierra Club meeting and listen to residents’ concerns. During the Q&A portion of the meeting, Broussard stood up and performed a roll-call to see who of those he invited had actually shown up. Not one city councilmember was in attendance, and only one representative of Lafayette Consolidated Government showed up.

Another resident, Rosaline Hebert, made an impassioned plea to protect the aquifer. “Not everywhere has an aquifer,” she said. “And an aquifer is from thousands of years ago that has been provided by nature, by God, for us. It’s a gift. It is unbelievable that we’re willing to do this. Please let us keep our aquifer clean, so that we can live.”

Water contamination isn’t the only reason residents are concerned about the rail yard. In fact, the hazardous waste already presents a significant threat to the health of the community, said Harold Schoeffler, a longtime environmental steward of the area. He also served as sole environmentalist asked to participate in the planning of the 1–49 connector.

“There’s a lot of other issues — surface contamination is a big issue,” Schoeffler said at the meeting. “During Festival Internationale and during Mardi Gras, hundreds of cars park in the rail yard. The whole place is full of cars. All the dust contains lead and all these contaminants are on the surface. Water runoff from the rail yard goes to the bayou, into the crawfish ponds, into the catfish, and it comes literally right back to our table.”

“It’s a ticking time bomb,” he said.

“All state agencies must protect the public and our natural resources,” Goodell said. “I don’t know why our local government will not get involved and do something about this. It does not make sense.”

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