Threat to Bayou Corne grows as tests show elevated levels of radium, butane traces in and near sinkhole

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Elevated levels of radium in the water and tests showing airborne indicators of butane — the highly explosive fuel stored in a nearby cavern — are two alarming signs that the environmental catastrophe in the Louisiana town of Bayou Corne is far from over.

The disturbing new information comes from both air and water testing at and near the massive and growing sinkhole in the bayou, 70 miles west of New Orleans — with additional analysis by a well-known expert with whom I’ve worked on past crises, Marco Kaltofen. The information about radium is buried in a state news release that is poorly written and goes out of its way to downplay the results.

The sinkhole — caused by a failing salt cavern owned by the Texas Brine Co., which collapsed after state and company officials ignored residents’ reports of shaking homes, noxious odors and gases bubbling up from the swamps — has forced local residents to evacuate the area. This week, state officials released the results of samples taken 80 feet under the surface of the growing, slurry-filled pit.

Kaltofen, a civil engineer and president of Boston Chemical Data Corp., noted that test results posted by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, show elevated rates of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material, or NORM, in the liquid sinkhole. NORM is a frequent byproduct of the oil and gas drilling process, creating wastes that the industry has often then dumped improperly. Here’s Kaltofen’s analysis of the situation in Bayou Corne:

Radium in the body is absorbed because it is chemically similar to calcium.  The normal maximum guideline level for radium in surface water is 5 picoCuries per liter, (pCi/L).  The state’s testing found 82 pCi/L in the water of the growing sinkhole.  Radium  gives off “alpha” radiation.  This form of radiation is extremely dangerous if inhaled or ingested, and less dangerous if exposed by skin contact. 

Radium decays to produce the dangerous radioactive gas, radon.  EPA warns that radon gas causes lung cancer, and that radon gas exposure can be as hazardous to your lungs as a serious cigarette habit.

In simple terms, skin usually protects the body from alpha radiation, but radon is highly worrisome because humans can be exposed by breathing it in. In the Bayou Corne situation, as Kaltofen notes: “Over time, some of the mud and crap in the pit will be carried away by wind, surface water, and even the tires of truck traffic, until it is inhaled as dust by local residents.  This will expose them to alpha radiation, and increase their chances of getting lung cancer.”

And NORM isn’t the only dangerous substance that has shown up in Louisiana’s testing. Some of these findings — even as stated in the DEQ’s seriously understated news release, as reprinted by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, or LEAN — should give you some idea of the gravity of the crisis in Bayou Corne. The tests show the air around this rural stretch of southeastern Louisiana is tainted with cancer-causing benzene, and there’s also this:

The air sample collected on August 16, 2012, from the residential area at the intersection of La Highway 70 and Gumbo St. contained the largest number of detectable chemicals which consisted of a number of natural gas components as well as volatile organic chemicals associated with diesel.  The air sample contained 0.81 ppbv of 2-Butanone, 1.91 ppbv of Chloromethane, and nine tentatively identified compounds, such as isobutane, 39.06 ppbv, propane, 44.75 ppbv, and  2-methyl pentane 8.09 ppbv. 

The health impacts associated with the chemicals detected in the air in the residential area consist of:
       -known and possible cancer causing agents
       -respiratory irritants
       -skin, eye, nose, throat, and lung irritants
cause:
       -headaches, nausea, vomiting
       -difficulty breathing
       -dizziness
       -lightheadedness
       -weakness
       -muscle aches and pains
       -joint pain
       -abdominal pain
       -stress

Kaltofen said the air testing of the Bayou Corne area shows increasing traces of chemicals associated with butane, which would confirm some of the worst fears of local residents.  Authorities have noted that the sinkhole is about 1,600 feet from a cavern containing over 900,000 barrels of liquid butane — a highly volatile and explosive compound, and there are fears the butane facility will be compromised.

The rapidly deteriorating situation underscores the great risks and decades of poor regulation in a stretch of Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley” because of its high concentration of oil, gas, and chemical facilities, including the large underground storage caverns. In Bayou Corne, officials with Texas Brine told state regulators more than a year and a half ago of serious structural problems with the abandoned cavern yet no action was taken — even in recent months as residents complained of strange rumblings and odors.

“Bayou Corne now has a growing sinkhole in the ground, radioactive wastes in the water, and traces of potentially explosive butane in the air,” Kaltofen told me .  “How much more damage can local residents be expected to suffer.”

You can read the state environmental testing results on the LEAN website, here: http://leanweb.org/our-work/community/public-health/more-monitoring-results-from-bayou-corne and here: http://leanweb.org/our-work/community/public-health/bayou-corne-sinkhole/bayou-corne-air-monitoring-results

Check out my most recent coverage of the Bayou Corne sinkhole crisis here: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/beleaguered-bayou-corne-braces-for-possible-butane-catastrophe

© Smith Stag, LLC 2012 – All Rights Reserved

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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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