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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
sinkhole
Illustration: Bill Mayer

"I didn't want to say anything because I didn't want everyone to think I was crazy," he says. But his neighbors noticed it, too. And they also saw something else unusual—bubbles of gas ("like boiling pasta," one resident recalls) appearing around the bayou.

Oxy3 was starting to cave in, but at the time the community was at a loss. The state's experts first suspected a leak from a natural gas pipeline, but that turned up nothing, so they investigated and ruled out the possibility that the bubbling might be "swamp gas"—naturally occurring emissions from decaying plant life. The US Geological Survey confirmed an increase in seismic activity but couldn't determine its exact source—there are no fault lines in the area. At the end of July 2012, with tremors and bubbling increasing and no clear signs of subsidence, Texas Brine, which had emerged as a possible culprit, told state officials that a sinkhole was highly unlikely.

On August 3, Bayou Corne residents awoke to the smell of sweet crude emanating from a gaping pit on the other side of the highway. Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an evacuation order that afternoon. Texas Brine got a permit to drill a relief well. When the company finally accessed the plugged chamber, they found the outer wall of the salt dome had collapsed. The breach allowed sediment to pour into the cavern, creating a seam through which oil and explosive gases were forced up to the surface.

It has been well established that structurally challenged caverns, owing to a lack of maintenance or poor planning, can cause sinkholes. In 1954, the collapse of a brining cavern at Bayou Choctaw, north of Baton Rouge—located in the same dome that today houses part of the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve—created an 820-foot-wide lake. In 2008, a 150-foot-deep crater known as "Sinkhole de Mayo" opened up over a cavern 50 miles northeast of Houston that had been used for storing oil drilling waste. But those disasters were all due to top-down pressure. Oxy3 collapsed from the side, something regulators and briners had previously considered impossible—highlighting, once again, how poorly understood the geology of salt caverns truly is.

Texas Brine's official line is that it has no idea why its cavern suddenly gave way; a mess appeared on its property without warning, and it is doing the responsible thing by cleaning it up. Yet it didn't begin paying buyouts to evacuees until nine months after the collapse, when Jindal threatened to shut down its Louisiana operations if it didn't. The settlements come with no admission of wrongdoing—to the contrary, the company insists the town is perfectly safe, and that residents (some of whom have defied the evacuation order) are taking advantage of Texas Brine's generosity by accepting weekly $875 stipends for living expenses while never leaving their homes. Only 59 homeowners have taken deals so far; others have signed onto a class action lawsuit against the company that's set to go to trial next year. Celebrity activist Erin Brockovich has been shuttling back and forth to Bayou Corne enlisting plaintiffs. "I just don't think anyone's gonna live there again," she says. "And if no one lives there, what desire is there for Texas Brine to clean it up? It's a tragedy really all the way around."
 

I meet Millard Fillmore "Sonny" Cranch, a crisis PR specialist retained by Texas Brine, in a trailer a hundred yards from the edge of the sinkhole. Nearby are two storage silos emblazoned with the company's slogan, "Texas Brine. Responsible Care." Cranch is a self-described "old fart" with Harry Potter glasses that wrap around his curly white hair and a habit of pounding the steering wheel when he wants to make a point.

The company's cleanup crew is rounding the "clubhouse turn," he explains, and they believe the sediment level in the cavern is stabilizing; the sinkhole may still expand slightly, and the burps might continue, but the worst is in the past. Truth be told, he's not even sure why the evacuation order is still active, but hey, if there's a "perceived risk," then safety first, right? According to Cranch, most of the gas that has been detected in explosive levels under the community is "naturally occurring swamp gas." (State officials aren't so sure.) Besides, Cranch tells me, it's not as if there's anything particularly menacing about hydrogen sulfide. "Flatulence is H2S," he says, sensing a chance to lighten the mood. "You're producing H2S as we speak right now."

In the car, Cranch says this morning's burp hadn't released much oil, but once we get to the site and inhale the fumes, he quickly revises his estimate upward: "I lied—that's more than five gallons." While the DNR warns that accurate measurements are difficult, John Boudreaux, the Assumption Parish director of emergency preparedness, told me more than 300 gallons had surfaced. (In July, Boudreaux double-checked the company's estimate of the sinkhole's depth—140 feet, Texas Brine claimed—and found that it had understated the figure by a factor of five.)

Given the class action, Texas Brine has a financial interest in deflecting the blame. During our outing, Cranch floats two possible culprits for the sinkhole: an oil well that another company drilled just outside the edge of the dome in the 1950s, or perhaps an earthquake. This isn't the official Texas Brine position, he's careful to add—"that's just Millard Cranch, theorizing."

The locals find such theories particularly irksome. "They think we're just a bunch of ignorant coonasses," says Mike Schaff, who like a few dozen Bayou Corne residents has ignored the evacuation order and stayed in his home. "We may be coonasses—but we're not ignorant."

Ignorance, willful or otherwise, is inextricable from what happened in Bayou Corne. Not only do Louisiana regulators have a poor grasp on how miners may be disturbing subsurface geology, they also have a pretty vague sense of how many caverns are located close to the outer ring of salt domes. In January, the Department of Natural Resources ordered companies with salt caverns to provide their most recently updated maps, and the agency is working on rules that would require additional modeling of the 29 caverns that are within 300 feet of an edge. And the agency is proposing regulations mandating that caverns be shut down and monitored for five years, rather than simply plugged and abandoned, if they fail a mechanical integrity test.

That's a start. But Wilma Subra, a MacArthur "Genius Grant"-winning chemist who advises the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, a group that's been monitoring the Bayou Corne sinkhole, is dubious that any meaningful action will be taken. "The regulatory climate is such that agencies are only allowed to put forth regulations that the industry supports," Subra says. Meanwhile, she adds, "What occurred in Bayou Corne shows what could potentially occur in any number of the other salt domes that have storage caverns."


Just down the road from what's left of Bayou Corne, the slabs and dead grass of Grand Bayou stand as a warning, albeit one nobody paid much attention to. There's a road sign on the water's edge bearing an Oliver Wendell Holmes quote: "Where we love is home—home that our feet may leave but not our hearts." The sign includes a date to mark the beginning of the settlement. There's no year of death, but it reads like the town's tombstone.

Back at the Assumption Parish library, Candy Blanchard has the floor and she's rolling. The exodus is on everyone's mind. She and her husband were planning out their retirement in a community their families had called home for generations. "Anybody who stays here and camps here, you gotta wanna be here," she says. "I mean, it's not a booming place." They hunt, they fish, they frog—or they did, anyway. But for the last 10 months, they've been crashing with friends in Paincourtville, and her husband has fallen into depression. Every morning, Blanchard, an elementary school teacher, breaks down on her drive to work and collects herself in the parking lot. But there's something about her odyssey her students seem to grasp immediately. "I taught migration this year," she tells the sniffling room. "It was the easiest lesson I've taught in my entire life."

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