The Louisiana sinkhole: It gets even worse

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The saga of the Louisiana sinkhole just keeps getting worse and worse. Officials with the company that mined the brine under the town of Bayou Corne in Assumption Parish — the Texas Brine Co. — and the Louisiana state regulatory agencies said they were simply shocked, shocked in the summer of 2012 when the earth began to rumble under the bayou community and when dozens of residents picked up the smell of gas.

But you had to expect that the company has some inkling that its cavern would collapse — which is did, creating that hole that’s already large enough to swallow the entire Louisiana Superdome and is expected to at least double in size over the next year. Indeed, in the early days of the crisis, it was revealed that Texas Brine had warned regulators in Baton Rouge that the cavern was at risk of collapsing, as early as 2010.

But I’ve been taking on the oil and gas companies inside a courtroom for more than two decades, and here is what I’ve learned during that time. If there’s a corner,  the big energy firms will cut it. If there’s a shortcut, they’ll take it. If there’s a safety improvement, they won’t pay for it. And if there’s an accident, they will fight for years — with tooth and nail, if necessary — to keep those documents under wrap. In this case, it’s taken more nearly a year and a half, but the truth about the Louisiana sinkhole is coming out:

Texas Brine ignored warnings from its own people and others for nearly 15 years that disaster loomed if the company continued mining a troubled Assumption Parish salt-dome cavern, which created a massive sinkhole after collapsing in 2012, according to one of its insurers.

In a federal lawsuit, Liberty Insurance Underwriters Inc. cites internal Texas Brine reports, memos and an email suggesting Texas Brine officials were warned with increasing specificity since the mid-1970s — before the cavern was even permitted and mined — that the area where the cavern was planned was close to the salt dome’s outer face.

This proximity could mean the cavern would be a “risky” venture if mined too deeply, the suit claims.

Texas Brine went ahead even as internal warnings continued in the late 1990s and 2000s.

Liberty’s lawsuit also quotes internal documents portraying Texas Brine as pushing back against suggestions from the one-time well owner, Vulcan Materials Co., to mine the cavern at a shallower depth than had been planned to avoid the deeper trouble areas.

The lawsuit alleges  that in 1998, despite what was then two decades of safety warnings, Texas Brine knew that it was working precariously close to the edge of the salt cavern and was creating the risk of a catastrophic collapse, and yet it plowed right ahead. The lawsuits come as the cost of buying out homeowners while containing the ever-expanding sinkhole continue to rise into the tens of millions, exhausting insurance liability limits. Many of the homes in Bayou Corne — which is about 70 miles west of New Orleans — are uninhabitable due to pervasive pollution from methane gas and other risks.

It’s hard to know what more to say about this. State lawmakers have already passed some stronger regulatory measures for mining caverns like the one under Bayou Corne, but the new rules come way too late to help the people of Assumption Parish. When people wonder why we need aggressive tort lawyers, I always tell them simply that corporations will not behave unless the cost of doing bad is much more than the cost of doing good. It’s increasingly clear that Texas Brine Co. did very bad. And it’s going to cost them — a lot.

To learn more about Texas Brine Co. and what it knew about problems at the Bayou Corne sinkhole, please check out: http://theadvocate.com/home/7502547-125/insurer-claims-texas-brine-ignored

For a timeline on what Texas Brine knew and when they knew it: http://theadvocate.com/news/7504580-123/lawsuit-timeline

For our earlier coverage about the Louisiana sinkhole, check out: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/category/featured-news/louisiana-sinkhole/

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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