Environment
3:37 pm
Wed March 20, 2013

Massive Sinkhole In Louisiana Baffles Officials

Originally published on Wed March 20, 2013 4:43 pm

Louisiana officials are grappling with a giant sinkhole that's threatening a neighborhood. A salt mine collapsed last year, creating a series of problems regulators say they've never seen before, including tremors and oil and gas leaks and a sinkhole that now covers 9 acres.

Residents have been evacuated for more than seven months now and are losing patience.

Ernie Boudreaux lives in a trailer on Jambalaya Street in Bayou Corne, La. Strange things have been happening to his home, he says.

"It cracks. You can hear it. The doors pop open by themselves," Boudreaux says.

The front porch is separating from the trailer and sometimes he smells oil — all problems that started after the sinkhole opened less than a half mile from his house. His neighborhood is under a mandatory evacuation, but Boudreaux comes back a few days a week to care for his dog, Diesel.

Houston-based Texas Brine has been mining salt near the Bayou Corne community for more than 40 years. The company is now paying evacuated residents $875 a week to cover temporary housing costs. But Boudreaux, a welder, says he can't find a rental that takes pets the size of Diesel, so he stays with his sister some and then comes home. He wants a more permanent solution.

"That $875 a week is hush-hush money — keep everybody quiet and just let it settle down. I say, I'm not letting this settle down. You talking about land, home that we can't come back to," Boudreaux says. "And if you do, it ain't worth nothing."

'Just Like An Experiment'

From Boudreaux's backyard you can see the entrance to Texas Brine. The firm operates several salt wells here in Assumption Parish, injecting water into an underground salt dome to leach out brine. The sodium chloride is used by the nearby petrochemical industries that line the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

"This is the sinkhole," says Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch. He looks out over what appears to be a lake surrounded by swampland and a fresh earthen levee. It was all swamp before Aug. 3, the morning workers discovered the sinkhole.

One day the area was swamp, he says, and the next "there's nothing, except debris, floating vegetative matter, and as it turned out, there was some liquid hydrocarbon that had risen to the surface."

That was crude oil and natural gas bubbling up from below ground. It was a mystery at first, but now authorities say an abandoned salt cavern collapsed, shifting the rock and salt formations deep below, causing the sinkhole above and unleashing hydrocarbons into the groundwater aquifer up to two miles from the site.

The sinkhole is still growing. Monitoring reveals continuing shifting underground and a possible problem at a second cavern.

The state has ordered Texas Brine to drill 30 of these natural gas wells around Bayou Corne.

Patrick Courreges with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources says the escaping methane poses a danger. "Want to get that out so that you don't have the risk of homes with enclosed spaces having a concentration of gas buildup that could be flammable or explosive," Courreges says.

Courreges says Texas Brine had plugged and abandoned this salt mine in 2010 after integrity problems. And state rules at the time did not require any continued monitoring. Now scientists have discovered that the side wall of the salt cavern collapsed, causing tremors, the sinkhole and oil and gas leaks. Courreges says they've yet to find a road map for dealing with this unique set of problems.

"When we started looking around [asking] who else has this happened to, and the answer came — and we're still looking — is nobody," he says.

That makes it hard to predict what will happen next.

"It's just like an experiment," says Wilma Subra, a technical adviser to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. "But the issue is, it is continuing to degrade. So as long as it's degrading, you can't say we've reached the end of degradation and now we can figure out how to remedy."

Buyouts At Bayou Corne

Bayou Corne resident Nick Romero is losing his patience.

"I didn't do anything. I didn't cause this," Romero says.

In his front yard, Romero watches gas bubbles seep up slowly through the cypress-studded swamp. "I'm being driven from the thing that I love the most," he says.

He's a retired postal worker and his wife, Brenda, is a nature artist. They've been here more than 20 years.

"The damage is done," Brenda says. "Our property is worth zero."

Nick Romero says after seven months, nothing is getting better. He wants Texas Brine to ante up.

"Man has played around and stuck his hands where he shouldn't have and mother nature says It's time for y'all to leave," he says. "They're responsible for causing it, so it's time for them to pay up."

Cranch of Texas Brine says the company will work with individual families to reach a fair settlement. "We want resolution of this. We really, truly appreciate the emotional stress this has caused for so many of these people in the Bayou Corne area," Cranch says.

Some residents have sued Texas Brine. And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is demanding damages for all of the 350 residents near the sinkhole. He also says the company owes the state more than $8 million for its response to the crisis.

"They're the ones that are the responsible party. They caused this damage, and certainly we'll be aggressive in making sure that they pay their bills — whether it's to the state, local government or the folks they buy out," Jindal said.

Back on Jambalaya Street, Boudreaux wants the buyout but isn't sure where he'll to go from Bayou Corne.

"We born and raised here. Ain't like I'm going to say I'm moving to Baton Rouge because I'm not a city person," he says. "I'm born in the swamp and bayous. They ain't got a bayou I'm outta place. I can't go to no city. But where you gonna go? That's the thing."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Our next story takes us to south Louisiana and the site of a giant sinkhole. It appeared last year when a salt mine collapsed, creating a series of problems that regulators say they have never seen before - tremors, oil and gas leaks. Residents were evacuated more than seven months ago. And as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, they are losing patience.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Strange things have been happening at Ernie Boudreaux's place on Jambalaya Street at Bayou Corne.

ERNIE BOUDREAUX: My trailer at night? It cracks. You can hear it. The doors pop open by themselves.

ELLIOTT: The front porch is separating from the trailer, and sometimes, he smells oil - all problems that started after the sinkhole opened less than a half mile from his house.

BOUDREAUX: Come on, boy.

ELLIOTT: His neighborhood is under a mandatory evacuation, but Boudreaux comes back a few days a week to care for his dog.

BOUDREAUX: Diesel.

(LAUGHTER)

BOUDREAUX: Big puppy. Wouldn't hurt nobody. It's not a good place to be at all, really, but like a lot of us, I mean, you just can't jump up and run. And, I mean, I can go here and there, but I got that dog. I mean, I raised that dog from a puppy.

ELLIOTT: Houston-based Texas Brine has been mining salt near the Bayou Corne community for more than 40 years. The company is now paying evacuated residents $875 a week to cover temporary housing costs. But Boudreaux, a welder, says he can't find a rental that takes pets the size of Diesel, so he stays with his sister some and then comes home. After seven months, he wants a more permanent solution.

BOUDREAUX: $875 a week is hush-hush money to keep everybody quiet and just let it settle down. I say I'm not letting this settle down. See, you're talking about land, home that we can't come back to. And if you do, it ain't worth nothing.

ELLIOTT: From Boudreaux's backyard, you can see the entrance to Texas Brine. The firm operates several salt wells here in Assumption Parish, injecting water into an underground salt dome to leach out brine. The sodium chloride is used by nearby petrochemical industries that line the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

SONNY CRANCH: This is the sinkhole.

ELLIOTT: Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch looks out over what appears to be a lake surrounded by swampland and a fresh earthen levee. It was all swamp before August 3rd, the morning workers discovered the sinkhole.

CRANCH: The trees were down because they had fallen into the - what do they call it...

ELLIOTT: So they - one day, they were at work and there were trees and regular swamp.

CRANCH: And this was just swamp, and then they came out here, and there's nothing and - except debris, just floating vegetative matter. And as it turned out, there was some liquid hydrocarbon that had risen to the surface.

ELLIOTT: Crude oil and natural gas bubbling up from belowground. It was a mystery at first, but now, authorities say an abandoned salt cavern collapsed, shifting the rock and salt formations deep below causing the sinkhole above and unleashing hydrocarbons into the groundwater aquifer up to two miles from the site.

CRANCH: From time to time, there'll be these little events, little bursts, they call them, and you'll get some more material that come to the surface. Sometimes, there are some hydrocarbon involved, other times, it's just vegetative matter.

ELLIOTT: The sinkhole has expanded to nine acres and is still growing. Monitoring reveals continuing shifting underground and a possible problem at a second cavern. Workers are fusing a pipe to vent off natural gas near the sinkhole. The state has ordered Texas Brine to drill 30 of these natural gas wells around Bayou Corne. Patrick Courreges, with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, says the escaping methane poses a danger.

PATRICK COURREGES: We want to get that out so that we don't - you don't have the risk of homes with enclosed spaces having a concentration of gas buildup that could be flammable or explosive.

ELLIOTT: Courreges says Texas Brine had plugged and abandoned this salt mine in 2010 after integrity problems, and state rules at the time did not require any continued monitoring. Now, scientists have discovered the side wall of the salt cavern collapsed, causing tremors, the sinkhole and oil and gas leaks. Courreges says they've yet to find a roadmap for dealing with this unique set of problems.

COURREGES: When we started looking around, OK, who else has this happened to, the answer came, and we're still looking, is nobody.

ELLIOTT: That makes it hard to predict what will happen next.

WILMA SUBRA: I mean, it's just like an experiment.

ELLIOTT: Wilma Subra is a technical adviser to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

SUBRA: The issue is it's continuing to degrade. So as long as it's degrading, you can't say, well, we've reached the end of degradation. Now, we can figure out how to remedy.

ELLIOTT: Bayou Corne resident Nick Romera is losing his patience.

NICK ROMERA: I didn't do anything. I didn't cause this. And you can see. You see these bubbles coming up right there?

(SOUNDBITE OF BUBBLES)

ROMERA: That's gas. That's gas coming up right there. It's just seeping up slow.

ELLIOTT: We're standing in Romera's front yard, on the edge of a cypress studded swamp, where he spends his mornings watching the wood ducks.

ROMERA: Yeah, I'm being driven from the thing that I love the most.

ELLIOTT: He's a retired postal worker, and his wife, Brenda, is a nature artist. They've been here more than 20 years.

BRENDA: The damage is done. Our property is worth zero. And we can't go buy another house. I mean, we don't have that kind of room in our budget. You know, until we get bought out, we can't - we're in limbo.

ELLIOTT: Nick Romera says after seven months, nothing is getting better. He wants Texas Brine to ante up.

ROMERA: So man has played around, stuck his hand where he shouldn't have, and Mother Nature says, you know, it's time for you all to leave, you know? And they're responsible for causing it, and so it's time for them to pay up.

ELLIOTT: Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch says the company will work with individual families to reach a fair settlement.

CRANCH: You know, we want resolution of this, and we really, truly appreciate the emotional stress this has caused for so many of these people in the Bayou Corne area.

ELLIOTT: Some residents have sued Texas Brine, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is demanding damages for all of the 350 residents near the sinkhole. He also says the company owes the state more than $8 million for its response to the crisis.

GOVERNOR BOBBY JINDAL: They're the ones that are the responsible party. They have caused this damage. And certainly, we'll be aggressive in making sure that they pay their bills, whether it's to the state or whether it's to the folks, local government or whether it's the folks they buy out.

ELLIOTT: Back on Jambalaya Street, Ernie Boudreaux wants the buyout but isn't sure where he'll to go from Bayou Corne.

BOUDREAUX: We born and raised here. Ain't like I'm going to say, well, I'm moving to Baton Rouge because I'm not a city person. You know, I'm born in the swamp. That's why there's a bayou. They ain't got a bayou, I'm out of place.

(LAUGHTER)

BOUDREAUX: You know, I can't go to no city. But where you going to go? That's the thing.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.