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Meet the Town That's Being Swallowed by a Sinkhole

What could possibly go wrong when miners, frackers, and drillers reshape the geology beneath our feet? Talk to the evacuees of Bayou Corne, Louisiana.

| Wed Aug. 7, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

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."

Bayou Corne Sinkhole
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.

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Texas Brine's first and last mapping project was in 1982, and by the company's own admission, it understated Oxy3's proximity to the edge of the salt dome and the possibility of a breach. When another company surveyed the dome a few years ago, it found that Texas Brine's cavern was less than 100 feet from the outer sheath of oil and gas, far closer than is permitted in other states. While Louisiana had restrictions on gas storage caverns, it had nothing on the books for active brine wells—only what regulators called a "rule of thumb" that wells be set back 200 feet.

When Texas Brine applied for a permit to expand Oxy3 in 2010, the company pressure-tested the cavern as mandated by the state, but it was unable to build up the requisite pressure, let alone sustain it. "At this time, a breach out of the salt dome appears possible," Mark Cartwright, a Texas Brine executive, notified the state's Department of Natural Resources. The DNR asked Texas Brine to "plug and abandon" the well. The agency did not, as it sometimes does, request further monitoring. Both parties expected the cavern to hold its shape, and it did until early June 2012, when Gary Metrejean felt the ground shake.

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