March of Folly: I-49, Rail Yard Toxins and Lafayette’s Water

The big push is on to finalize (again) a design choice for the proposed I-49 route through downtown Lafayette. DOTD and Lafayette Consolidated Government leaders along with their corporate sponsor/patrons at OneAcadiana say they’ll make a decision in the next few days.

The rush to get the project built contrasts dramatically with the same group’s aversion to determining the extent of ground and water pollution in the Union Pacific rail yard that stretches 1.5 miles from Simcoe Street in the north to Taft in the south.

The proposed I-49 road way would run right through the Union Pacific rail yard (area in yellow). Base map by DOTD.

The rail yard operated about 70 years before all but a few people appreciated the connection between industrial operations and quality of life. The long length of ground and water contamination at the site leads some local environmental activists to believe it is extensively polluted.

The road proponents don’t appear at all concerned by that.

They should be. The north end of the site is literally across Simcoe from an aggregation point for a water well field belonging to Lafayette Utilities System. The LUS wells already show the presence of trace presence of chemicals linked to the Union Pacific site.

These wells serve as the source of drinking water for most of the city of Lafayette.

I-49 through downtown poses the very real threat to speed the pollution of the LUS wells because it would run through most of old rail yard, requiring pilings to be driven. In some places in the vicinity of the yard, the Chicot Aquifer — the sole source of drinking water for Lafayette and most of south Louisiana — rises to as little as 40 feet below the surface of the ground.

Driving pilings through the pollution would drive it toward the water supply by breaking the barriers that separate the aquifer from the ground above it. The chemicals dumped in the rail yard over those seven decades might well have accomplished some of that already.

Kim Goodell of WaterMark Alliance.

Kim Goodell of WaterMark Alliance is alarmed by the folly of proceeding to disturb the site when no comprehensive assessment of the pollution there has ever been carried out. There has been some spot testing and even some spot cleanups in connection with land transactions. But, Goodell says a thorough assessment is an essential step to an effective cleanup and that has never occurred.

The LUS water well field pumps 20 million gallons a day out of the ground just north of the Union Pacific site. That pull has created a current of sorts in the aquifer — a cone of depression which draws water and whatever is in it toward the wells.

Goodell is adamant that the problem is real and that the pollution threat exists separate from the I-49 project. Her concern is that the project will make matters worse because state and local officials are refusing to acknowledge the serious nature of the threat posed by the long-term pollution at the site.

Goodell is working with community groups across the city through her WaterMark Alliance to call attention to the general need to create more citizen awareness of the pollution issue and the importance of clean drinking water to the ability to sustain life. Think Flint, Michigan. Or, closer to home, St. Joseph, Louisiana.

Proponents of I-49 say the train is about to leave the station on that project. If it does before the extent of pollution at the Union Pacific site is discovered, that train just might take our drinking water with it.

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Thanks to Matt Roberts, AOC’s Community Programming Director for help locating the music used in this segment.

A Foolish Game by Hans Atom (c) copyright 2017 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/hansatom/55394 Ft: Snowflake