BACKGROUND: In Spring of 2012, Louisiana’s Corne and Grand Bayou residents noticed strange bubbling in the bayou for many weeks, and they reported smelling burnt diesel fuel and sulfur. Then suddenly a sinkhole the size of three football fields appeared on Aug. 3, swallowing scores of 100-foot tall cypress trees. The sinkhole resulted from the failure of Texas Brine Company’s abandoned underground brine cavern. The Department of Natural Resources issued a Declaration of Emergency on Aug. 6, and 150 families were evacuated.
“Assumption sinkhole raises concerns”
It seems to be the stuff of science fiction, but the giant sinkhole at Bayou Corne in Assumption Parish is all too real. The gaping hole in the ground has displaced about 350 nearby residents and has drawn concern about the environmental impact and physical safety of people nearby.
And with good reason. The sinkhole, which last August spontaneously yawned open, preceded by unusual bubbling in Bayou Corne, has continued to grow and so far has devoured real estate, trees and at least one boat.
Gov. Bobby Jindal recently announced after a meeting with company officials that Houston-based Texas Brine Co., LLC, will offer buyouts to residents who want to relocate and settlements to those who choose to continue living near the now-9-acre sinkhole.
That seems fair. As the governor pointed out in a recent article in The Daily Advertiser, “They caused the situation. They’ve got to make it right.”
Scientists have said the sinkhole opened up when a salt cavern operated by Texas Brine collapsed. Texas Brine had been extracting brine from the cavern and piping it to petrochemical facilities.
Methane, oil and natural gas were released into the pit from formations along the face of the cavern.
The disaster has attracted some high-profile attention. Environmental activist Erin Brockovich, played by Julia Roberts in the movie by the same name, recently visited Assumption Parish to meet with the still-displaced residents.
She was accompanied by Thomas V. Girardi, one of the attorneys who helped Brockovich obtain a $333 million settlement in the famous case depicted in the movie. He has been hired by some of the local residents.
It seems somewhat strange that news of sinkholes has been rare — until now. Just recently, a man was killed in Florida when part of his house fell into a sinkhole that suddenly opened up. Since then three more sinkholes have opened up in the same area.
An article in the New York Times reports that collapsing limestone under the neighborhood was the culprit. And according to the Florida Geological Survey website, Florida sits on a bed of porous limestone that is constantly dissolving and forming underground holes and caverns.
In Florida, the sinkholes seem to be the result of nature. The Louisiana sinkhole appears to be, if Jindal is right, the result of human intervention.
It’s small wonder that people living in the vicinity of Lake Peigneur have been nervous about what appear to be bubbles on the lake. The Department of Natural Resources has assured the public that it’s just foam, not bubbles. Experts say there is no similarity between Lake Peigneur and the Assumption Parish sinkhole.
But some residents around the Iberia Parish lake remember the disaster that struck in 1980, when the entire lake drained like a bathtub into a 1,500-foot-deep salt cavern beneath, taking with it trees, structures, trucks, acres of land, 11 barges and the Texaco drilling rig that had punctured a 14-inch hole in the ceiling of the salt dome. The accident temporarily reversed the course of the Delcambre Canal and created a 150-foot waterfall.
The water all flowed back into the lake, but the sense of unease remained.
Assurances aside, seeing the giant sinkhole open up near Bayou Corne would naturally add to their sense of apprehension.
It certainly has raised a few questions.
How many salt caverns are there in Louisiana?
Where are they?
Are they being used for storage of potentially toxic materials or other purposes?
What safety protocols are in place to safeguard against collapse?
As the governor works to ease the plight of the Assumption Parish residents, officials should also be looking for answers to these questions and make sure all is as it should be.
No one else should wake up one morning to find a gaping, toxic sinkhole encroaching on their neighborhood.
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