Virlie Langlinais was at her Louisiana home on Lake Peigneur when she saw the swirling vortex. "It was like watching a science fiction movie with tug boats and rigs and everything going on," she recalls from the comfort of her friend's porch some three decades later, a faint breeze licking off the water below. "Like watching a little ducky in a bathtub going down the drain." Now she and her husband, Noicy, live in fear that it might happen again.
Lake Peigneur, the site of one of the state's most spectacular industrial disasters in 1980, kept coming up in my conversations with residents of Bayou Corne, the Cajun community in south Louisiana that has been evacuated for more than a year due to a massive, mining-induced sinkhole that now spans 24 acres—and is still growing. Last week, the state filed suit against Texas Brine and Occidental Chemical Company for damages relating to the disaster. (Read my story on Bayou Corne, which appears in the September/October issue of Mother Jones, here.) So on a sticky Sunday morning in June, I crossed over the Atchafalaya spillway to see the place for myself.
In November 1980, in the process of generating revenue for (of all things) an environmental cleanup fund, a Texaco oil rig accidentally punctured the top of a salt mine situated beneath the lake. The water above emptied into the mine, creating a whirlpool that sucked 11 barges into the caverns below, turned the lake from freshwater to saline, and caused the Delcambre Canal to flow backwards. Three days later, 9 of the 11 barges "popped up like iron corks," the Associated Press reported; the other 2 were never found. Miraculously, all 55 workers who were inside the mine at the time of the accident managed to escape.
About once a month, the residents of Bayou Corne, Louisiana, meet at the Assumption Parish library in the early evening to talk about the hole in their lives. "It was just like going through cancer all over again," says one. "You fight and you fight and you fight and you think, 'Doggone it, I've beaten this thing,' and then it's back." Another spent last Thanksgiving at a 24-hour washateria because she and her disabled husband had nowhere else to go. As the box of tissues circulates, a third woman confesses that after 20 years of sobriety she recently testified at a public meeting under the influence.
"The God of my understanding says, 'As you sow, so shall you reap,'" says Kenny Simoneaux, a balding man in a Harley-Davidson T-shirt. He has instructed his grandchildren to lock up the ammunition. "I'm so goddamn mad I could kill somebody."
But the support group isn't for addiction, PTSD, or cancer, though all of these maladies are present. The hole in their lives is a literal one. One night in August 2012, after months of unexplained seismic activity and mysterious bubbling on the bayou, a sinkhole opened up on a plot of land leased by the petrochemical company Texas Brine, forcing an immediate evacuation of Bayou Corne's 350 residents—an exodus that still has no end in sight. Last week, Louisiana filed a lawsuit against the company and the principal landowner, Occidental Chemical Corporation, for damages stemming from the cavern collapse.
Texas Brine's operation sits atop a three-mile-wide, mile-plus-deep salt deposit known as the Napoleonville Dome, which is sheathed by a layer of oil and natural gas, a common feature of the salt domes prevalent in Gulf Coast states. The company specializes in a process known as injection mining, and it had sunk a series of wells deep into the salt dome, flushing them out with high-pressure streams of freshwater and pumping the resulting saltwater to the surface. From there, the brine is piped and trucked to refineries along the Mississippi River and broken down into sodium hydroxide and chlorine for use in manufacturing everything from paper to medical supplies.
Bayou Corne is the biggest ongoing disaster in the United States you haven't heard of.
What happened in Bayou Corne, as near as anyone can tell, is that one of the salt caverns Texas Brine hollowed out—a mine dubbed Oxy3—collapsed. The sinkhole initially spanned about an acre. Today it covers more than 24 acres and is an estimated 750 feet deep. It subsists on a diet of swamp life and cypress trees, which it occasionally swallows whole. It celebrated its first birthday recently, and like most one-year-olds, it is both growing and prone to uncontrollable burps, in which a noxious brew of crude oil and rotten debris bubbles to the surface. But the biggest danger is invisible; the collapse unlocked tens of millions of cubic feet of explosive gases, which have seeped into the aquifer and wafted up to the community. The town blames the regulators. The regulators blame Texas Brine. Texas Brine blames some other company, or maybe the regulators, or maybe just God.
Bayou Corne is the biggest ongoing industrial disaster in the United States you haven't heard of. In addition to creating a massive sinkhole, it has unearthed an uncomfortable truth: Modern mining and drilling techniques are disturbing the geological order in ways that scientists still don't fully understand. Humans have been extracting natural resources from the earth since the dawn of mankind, but never before at the rate and magnitude of today's petrochemical industry. And the side effects are becoming clear. It's not just sinkholes and town-clearing natural gas leaks: Recently, the drilling process known as fracking has been linked to an increased risk of earthquakes.
"When you keep drilling over and over and over again, whether it's into bedrock or into salt caverns, at some point you have fractured the integrity of this underground structure enough that something is in danger of collapsing," observes ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber, whose work has focused on fracking and injection wells. "It's an inherently dangerous situation."
The sinkhole forced the entire town of Bayou Corne to evacuate. Jeffrey Dubinsky for Leanweb.org/LMRK.org
The domes are not just harvested for their salt. Over the last 60 years, in the Gulf Coast—and to a lesser extent in Kansas, Michigan, and New York—industry has increasingly used the sprawling caverns that result from injection mining as a handy place to store things—namely crude oil, pressurized gases, and even radioactive materials. The federal government considers salt tombs in Louisiana and Texas ideal for the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The hundreds of salt caverns that honeycomb the substrata, as companies like Texas Brine take pains to point out, are mostly safe, most of the time. But when something goes wrong, the results are disastrous—sometimes spelling the end for nearby communities. The dangers are myriad, from sinkholes to natural gas explosions to toxic-fume releases. Salt caverns account for just 7 percent of all natural gas storage facilities in the United States (although that number is increasing) but 100 percent of all major accidents, according to one industry analyst.
Bayou Corne residents need only drive a quarter mile down Highway 70 to see the worst-case scenario. On Christmas Day 2003, a methane leak from a Napoleonville Dome salt cavern storing natural gas forced residents of Grand Bayou, a neighboring hamlet, to evacuate. Dow Chemical, which owned the cavern, bought out the mostly elderly residents, leaving only concrete slabs behind. In places like Barbers Hill, Texas, similar leaks have turned once-thriving neighborhoods into ghost towns. A 2001 cavern leak in Hutchinson, Kansas, spewed 30-foot-tall geysers of gas and water and caused an explosion that left two people dead.
"I hate to say, but it's not an unusual event," says Robert Traylor, a geologist at the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state's oil and gas regulator. "These things happen. In the oil business, a million things can go wrong, and they usually go wrong."
But disasters like the one in Bayou Corne have done little to slow the growth of injection mining. Last spring, lawmakers in Baton Rouge pushed through a handful of modest reforms in response to the sinkhole, but the toughest regulations were knocked down by the chemical industry. New caverns continue to be permitted. It's not a question of whether there will be another Bayou Corne—but where, and how big.
On a scorching June morning, I board a Cessna to survey the sinkhole. My 45-mile flight passes through the heart of southern Louisiana's industrial jungle, a continuous series of pipelines and processing plants that line the Mississippi as it twists like a busted-up slinky toward the gulf. The smoking skyline gives way to a checkered ribbon of cane and soybean fields and at last to the swampy interior of Assumption Parish.
You notice the booms first, bright yellow plastic rolls designed to trap the oil and brine that collect on the surface and prevent them from seeping into the surrounding waterways. A grove of cypress trees has been stripped bare and sits gray and rotting. At 500 feet, the air is thick with the smell of crude, and the water has a rainbow sheen; in the last few hours, the sinkhole has burped again, and workers are scurrying to contain the new release.
The Acadians—the French Canadian refugees who settled here in the 1700s—were drawn to the bayous by their bounty of gators and crawdads and spoonbills. Petrochemical giants came for other reasons: the chemicals in the salt domes and the oil and gas reserves that surround them. Gas and brine pipelines cross over and under the town and its surrounding swamps, carving up the basin into a web of rights of way for companies including Chevron, Dow, Crosstex, and Florida Gas.
Texas Brine's Oxy3 cavern, one of 53 in the Napoleonville Dome and one of six operated by the company, is more than a mile below the surface. At that depth, 3-D seismic mapping is both time-consuming and expensive, and as a consequence, injection-mining companies often have only a foggy—and outdated—idea of what their mines really look like. "Everybody wants to do it within a certain budget and a certain time frame," explains Jim LaMoreaux, a hydrologist who organizes an annual conference on salt-cavern-caused sinkholes. In some cases, he says, it's possible that companies cut corners and fail to commission the proper studies.
Coming this fall to I-95 in Richmond: A 15-foot-wide Confederate battle flag.
On Saturday, Virginia Flaggers, a small organization dedicated to promoting the state's Confederate heritage, announced that it is leasing a small patch of land adjacent to the highway just outside the state capital, from which it plans to fly the Confederate flag*, "24/7, 365 days of the year."
In a post on the Flaggers' website, spokeswoman Susan Hathaway announced that the flag "will serve to welcome visitors and commuters to Richmond, and remind them of our honorable Confederate history and heritage." The group's members are going to start work on the project this week, with a formal unveiling slated for September 28; in the meantime, they have launched a fundraising campaign to bring in the $3,000 they need to put the thing up.
Prior to the I-95 project, the Virginia Flaggers had spent most of their energy protesting the decision by two museums, the Museum of the Confederacy in Appomattox and Richmond's Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, not to fly the Confederate flag outside. In an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Hathaway explained that the flag's positive message had been distorted by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. (Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, whom Hathaway is a fan of, was the Klan's first grand wizard.)
The Confederate States of America was a dysfunctional coalition of 11 states formed in 1861 around a unifying principle of white supremacy. Member states initiated a four-year-long armed conflict against the Union that resulted in 600,000 deaths. Post-Civil War, the Confederate battle flag was a largely dormant symbol of the Old South until the 1950s, when opponents of federal action against racial segregation adopted it once again—sometimes in places, such as Kentucky, that had remained under Union control throughout the war.
Hathaway did not respond to a request for comment from Mother Jones, but on the Flaggers' website, the group does weigh in on the relevance of the Confederate flag in the age of Obama. On July 4th, Virginia Flaggers posted a special Independence Day message: "God bless America...and God bless those who have the courage to stand in the face of tyranny...whether it be in 1776...1861...or 2013!"
*Correction: This post originally misidentified the Confederate battle flag as the "stars and bars."
At a town hall forum in her district on Monday that was sponsored by a local tea party group, Roby was asked by an attendee what she would do to counter the supposed abuses of President Barack Obama, whom the man described as ineligible for office, a communist, and a tyrant. Here's how the fellow put it: "What I need from you is to know what you can do, you and your fellow non-communist colleagues in the lower House, what you can do to stop these communist tyrannical executive orders laid down by this foreign-born, America-hating communist despot?"
After the room erupted in laughter and supportive applause, Roby responded with a smile: "Thank you for your question—he said it loud enough that you all heard it." Roby did not push back on the questioner's claims. Instead, she validated his fears. "Look I can't emphasize the oversight part of my job enough," she said. "And I think that that gets lost in what we do every day, because that's exactly what we're doing—we're chasing down these executive orders, we're chasing down these rules that are promulgated, that are backdoor legislation, whether it's the EPA, the IRS, go down the list."
Contrast Roby's dodgy reply with the direct response employed by McCain during the 2008 campaign, when a McCain supporter called then-Sen. Obama "an Arab." McCain grabbed the microphone and wouldn't let this stand:
As I explained on Wednesday, Neil Cavuto, Fox News' senior vice president and managing editor of business news, doesn't know how inflation works. In a segment about living-wage activists, Cavuto boasted of having once earned $2/hour as a teenager—except that when adjusted for inflation, he was actually making about $9.47/hour, which is $2.22 above the federal minimum wage. (That, and he was a teenager living with his parents, not a 32-year-old woman with two kids; there's also that.)
On Thursday, the Daily Show's John Oliver picked up the ball. Give it a watch: