(Editor’s note: This is part three of The Revelator’s months-long investigation into Hilcorp Energy. You can find the entire investigation here.)
Gleason Alexis was ready with his camera phone to record the destruction of his family’s oyster beds by contractors working for Houston billionaire Jeffery Hildebrand’s Hilcorp Energy Company.
For the third time in five years, Alexis says, Hilcorp contractors used tugboats to drag an oil-drilling barge through a shallow Louisiana wetland where his mother has had a lease to grow oysters for more than 15 years. The lease is in Barataria Bay, on the Louisiana coast south of New Orleans.
Each time, Alexis says, the Hilcorp contractors’ drilling barge and tugboats cut channels into the seafloor, destroying the oyster beds and stirring up silt that deposits on other nearby oyster beds, smothering the shellfish.
“Every time it kills another generation of oysters,” Alexis, 49, says. It takes about three years to grow a generation of oysters. “Once the bottom is damaged it pretty much won’t repair itself,” he says.
Alexis says he saw workers at a Hilcorp well site in late January 2016, and they told him they were preparing the area for work. On Jan. 28, 2016, attorneys representing the Louisiana Oystermen Association sent a “cease and desist” email to Hilcorp asking the company to stop actions that could damage oyster leases.
The next day, while inspecting the oyster beds, Alexis saw a tugboat dragging a drilling barge through his family’s oyster lease.
“I was prepared to film the mud and wheel-washing so I would have some kind of proof,” he says of the Jan. 29, 2016 incident. Here’s that footage:
Wheel-washing, also known as prop-washing, is a method for dredging channels in shallow wetlands. Powerful tugboat engines are operated at high speed to forcefully churn the water to create a current that cuts channels into the seafloor.
“Prop-washing through oyster leases rips up and smothers hard bottom that is carefully cultivated by oyster farmers for harvest,” says Scott Eustis, coastal wetland specialist for the Gulf Restoration Network. “But that hard bottom and shell, or rip rap, is also a form of erosion control for the coastal marshes.”
For decades, oil companies used prop-washing to move their oil rigs into the marshes. The process has been linked to the steady erosion of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, estimated at an acre per hour. (See a photographic timeline showing the erosion of Louisiana’s coastal area since the 1930s, produced by ProPublica, here.)
“The coastal law forbids prop-wash if there are practical alternatives to suction the sediment,” Eustis says.
Hilcorp, Eustis says, is one of the few companies that continue to use the process, even in areas where the state is trying to restore marshes. The corporation has been acquiring oyster leases to allow it to cut channels without conflicts with oyster growers, according to state records gathered by Gulf Restoration Network.
The channelization, Eustis says, makes a marshland restoration project located in the same area as some of Hilcorp’s oyster leases more expensive and perhaps even impossible to achieve.
“Every other company seems to get it but Hilcorp,” Eustis says, pointing out that the company is the largest oil producer in Louisiana. “They are a company whose business model is rip and run, and their acquisition of oyster leases is a plan to pollute.”
The prop-washing incident across Alexis’ leasehold is now the primary example in a federal Clean Water Act citizens’ lawsuit filed against Hilcorp last June by the Louisiana Oystermen Association.
Michael Brown, a New Orleans attorney representing the oystermen’s association, says Hilcorp did not obtain a state “coastal use permit” and federal Clean Water Act Section 404 permit required before damaging wetlands with dredged or fill material.
Initiating the permitting process would have given the public an opportunity to comment on Hilcorp’s plans to move the oil-drilling barge and its impact on wetlands — a process that could have forced the company to use alternative, more expensive methods to access the well site, Brown says.
“All of that is thrown out the window when Hilcorp fails to apply for the permits,” Brown says.
Hilcorp spokeswoman Lori Nelson said the company “cannot comment to ongoing litigation” with the Louisiana Oystermen Association. She said Hilcorp “has a strict adherence to all state and federal regulations.”
The oystermen’s association, as well as Brown’s law firm, notified the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which oversees 404 permitting, and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Office of Coastal Management (OCM) of Hilcorp’s prop-washing on the same day that Alexis videoed the tugboats dragging the drilling barge.
“In response to USACE and OCM inquiries, Hilcorp denied wrongdoing and illegally misrepresented key facts to enforcement personnel,” Brown’s law partner, Joel Waltzer, stated in a Dec. 19, 2016 letter to the Office of Coastal Management.
According to the letter, the Army Corps held a Feb. 1, 2016 conference call with Hilcorp to discuss the complaints. Hilcorp officials told the Corps their equipment had drafts between 4 feet and 6 feet and that the channel was 7 feet to 8.5 feet deep, notes from the conference call show.
“Most importantly — we did not prop-wash and/or dredge to access the location in question,” Hilcorp environmental specialist Cory Johnson stated in a Feb. 1, 2016 email to Corps inspector Rob Heffner.
Heffner accepted Hilcorp’s assertion and, without conducting a field inspection, closed the case. “Therefore it was determined that it was unlikely their equipment caused any damage to the water bottoms or oyster leases in the area,” Heffner wrote in the case file.
A copy of the Hilcorp email and Heffner’s notes are included in Waltzer’s Dec. 19, 2016 letter to the Office of Coastal Management.
Hilcorp declined to respond to The Revelator’s written question asking why Hilcorp environmental specialist Johnson sent an email to the Army Corps stating the company did not prop-wash.
Waltzer’s letter also states the video evidence, documentation of the drafts of the tugboats and drilling barge and seafloor measurements taken by an Office of Coastal Management investigator after the dredging was completed on Feb. 5, 2016 show that Hilcorp cut a channel at least eight feet deep through oyster beds that averaged six feet deep.
Hilcorp has a long history of violating state coastal regulations, dating back to at least 2006. Most of the violations claim Hilcorp was conducting activities without a state permit. In almost every case, the state retroactively granted an “after-the-fact,” or ATF, permit to Hilcorp. The violations, compiled by the oystermen association’s law firm, include:
- Illegally damaging a marsh with marsh buggies (2006). ATF permit granted. “We shouldn’t have to be on their back about this,” the Louisiana Department of Natural Resource’s file states. “They’re cutting corners.”
- Dumped fill excavated from the water bottom in a manner that posed a navigation hazard, without proper authorization (2009). ATF permit granted.
- Prop-washing without a permit (2011). ATF permit granted.
- Hilcorp was forced to obtain three ATF permits after failing to submit coastal use permits for emergency repairs (2013).
- DNR discovered Hilcorp destroyed 1.83 acres of marsh after telling the state “no excavation or fill will be required.” DNR required Hilcorp to apply for an ATF permit and to pay $87,856 to Coastal Mitigation Fund and pay a small fine (2013).
- Hilcorp was required to apply for two ATF permits after conducting well repairs. (2015)
- Hilcorp allegedly removed an oil pipeline prior to receiving a permit. DNR is conducting an investigation (2016).
Hilcorp spokeswoman Nelson stated that the company does “not agree with the assessment of ‘after-the-fact’ permit attainment” and that Hilcorp “attains necessary permits as required for our operations.”
In addition to the DNR violations, the Louisiana Office of Conservation, which is in charge of drilling regulations, has an 18-page list of operator warnings, violations and compliance record for Hilcorp, with numerous civil fines issued against the company. The list is attached to the oystermen association’s initial pleading in the Clean Water Act lawsuit.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also reached 10 consent decrees with Hilcorp for Clean Water Act violations in Louisiana in the past decade, EPA records show.
After initially denying that it had done any work on the well site near Alexis’ oyster lease that required a permit, Hilcorp, once again, is a seeking an after-the-fact permit. Hilcorp’s request for retroactive approval triggered strong opposition during a March public hearing, according to The Lens, a New Orleans nonprofit news site.
“Hilcorp is a bad operator in coastal Louisiana,” The Lens reported Michael Roberts, president of the Association of Family Fishermen, as saying during the hearing. “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 DNR spokesman told The Revelator that the agency is not expected to make a decision on Hilcorp’s ATF application for months.
The oystermen’s association’s Clean Water Act lawsuit survived Hilcorp’s motion to dismiss when a federal judge ruled in January the case could proceed.
And the lawsuit is already having a direct impact on Alexis’ family. In the years following Hurricane Katrina, his brother had a tugboat contract with Hilcorp while he focused on the family oyster business.
“Hilcorp has been good to my family,” he says.
But that was before the conflict over the oyster leases eventually led to the federal lawsuit.
“When that happened, they took my brother off the vendors list,” Alexis says. His brother, he pointed out, has nothing to do with the oyster business.