July 14, 2008

La. Community Enjoys Economic Rewards That Come With Drilling

By Rick Jervis

BAYOU LAFOURCHE, La. -- Driving along this long finger of water connecting the mainland with the Gulf of Mexico, an occasional Spanish villa-style mansion appears among the wooden bait shacks and tugboat docks.

The tony homes are proof of the economic boom this Cajun fishing community has experienced since the 1970s, when oil and gas companies began moving into Port Fourchon at the southern tip of the bayou.

While other areas of the country have fought coastal drilling, the port and Lafourche Parish embraced the industry and used oil money to fend off environmental impacts, port director Ted Falgout, 57, says. "It's worth the investment," he says. "It'll help us in our ultimate challenge -- survival."

Environmentalists have battled the industry and the port over the impact of offshore drilling, which includes oil spills, toxic contaminants from drilling fluids and the destruction of wetlands to build canals and pipelines. In 2000, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and the Gulf Coast Mariners Association sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, alleging that the corps was permitting Port Fourchon's expansion without provisions to replace wetlands. The two sides settled in 2002.

"Every time Port Fourchon expands, given where they are, they're going to have a larger footprint on our wetlands," says Aaron Viles, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network. "While they've been responsible on coastal restoration efforts, you can't discount the fact that they build in wetlands."

The risks of having an oil port embedded in wetlands became evident during Hurricane Katrina. A pipeline burst during the storm. It spilled more than 53,000 gallons of crude oil into the surrounding marshes -- one of the bigger spills caused by the hurricane, says Roland Guidry, the state's oil spill coordinator.

Oil speculators have targeted Louisiana since the 1920s and began drilling offshore in 1947. Faced with that history, Falgout, a marine biologist by training, set out to fix the problems in Port Fourchon, located about 100 miles southwest of New Orleans. The port's annual budget grew from $200,000 in 1978 to $65 million today, Falgout says. The parish's unemployment rate last year was 2.4% -- half the national average at the time.

The boom of the mid-1990s created a new breed of Cajun millionaires in Lafourche, as companies began servicing and selling parts to oil rigs. "In this community, if a person doesn't work, it's because he doesn't want to work," says Golden Meadow Mayor Joey Bouziga, who also manages a slip at the port.

The revenue from leasing slips to oil and gas companies -- about $16 million a year -- also pays to help fight natural coastal erosion, Falgout says.

Without oil money, the southern half of Bayou Lafourche would be at risk of being swallowed by the Gulf, he says. "We've been able to convince the environmental community that this is the nest of the goose that's laying the golden egg," he says. "If we're ever going to get money to save the environment, we better keep this nest up." (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>