Incompetent Louisiana regulators knew of risk at sinkhole site since early 2011


It’s hard to know which is the worst thing about the ongoing environmental nightmare in the southeastern Louisiana community of Bayou Corne, where a massive sinkhole has forced an evacuation after homes shook and residents were assaulted with gas odors.

Is it the fact that residents of the small bayou town will be out of their homes for weeks while the Texas company that worked a giant salt cavern to produce brine drills a large relief well to figure out just what caused the sinkhole, and the extent of the problems underground?

Or is it the risk that the sinkhole — which is now wider than a football field and over 400 feet deep — poses to the many nearby pipelines as well as a nearby well storing a large quantity of highly explosive liquid butane, which some experts worry poses the risk of an explosion that would resemble a nuclear blast?

Or is it this: State regulators from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources — that inept, pro-industry gang with a long track record of failures — were told of problems at the Bayou Corne salt cavern 20 months ago,  yet failed to act or seemingly even grasp the extent of the problem for weeks as residents complained of shaking homes, gas bubbling up from under the ground, and sickening odors?

Right now, it is the cover-up that has residents the most angry — and understandably so.

Since Saturday, disaster workers are required to wear respirators, although the public within the disaster area is not.

“You can give us a straight answer because that’s all we want,” a woman said at the community meeting Tuesday. “We want to know when we can come home and be safe. Because you all go home after a days work. You’re safe, but we’re not,” she said, expressing sentiments of other locals with whom Dupré has spoken.

The truth is that residents and key officials in Assumption Parish — a refinery-rich landscape about 70 miles west of New Orleans that has been dubbed “Cancer Alley” — have been kept in the dark for months and possibly years about both what has been going on at the salt cavern, that its owners once were granted a permit for dumping the radioactive waste from oil and gas drilling, and then about the growing likelihood that the cavern would fail catastrophically:

In recent days, we’ve learned that state officials were told about potential problems at Bayou Corne more than a year and a half ago:Louisiana Department of Natural Resources and Texas Brine Co. officials knew at least since January 2011 that one of the company’s salt dome caverns may have developed problems now suspected of possibly causing a large sinkhole and unexplained natural gas venting in northern Assumption Parish swamps.

For more than two months, as gas bubbles and tremors rattled the Bayou Corne community and DNR and other officials asked for patience while pipelines, oil and gas wells and other salt caverns were tested.

The problems with the salt cavern were not disclosed to the public and some parish officials involved with the response effort.

It turns out that company officials with Texas Brine knew of problems at the site dating as far back as the spring of 2010, if not earlier, and informed Louisiana DNR officials in January 2011 that the situation could be serious:

“One obvious concern is the cavern’s proximity to the edge of salt,” Cartwright wrote to DNR’s Joseph “Joe” S. Ball Jr. “There have been several studies in this regard, and Texas Brine has mapped the salt boundary near the cavern applying available well log data, seismic data, and most recently, vertical seismic data gathered during the workover. At this time, a breach out of the salt dome appears possible.”

In spite of the problems, DNR didn’t require the company to monitor the cavern once it had been closed. The state never told local elected officials, area law enforcement, or emergency-response leaders of the alarming report from Texas Brine. And when the first disturbing calls came in from neighbors about gas coming up from the ground, DNR wasted weeks looking for other sources instead of investigating the possibility that the failing cavern was to blame.

Unfortunately, as regular readers of this site know, this shocking level of bureaucratic malpractice is in many ways par for the course in Louisiana, where environmental regulation is divided among a couple of state agencies — all of which do their job badly. In a state that leads the nation in its concentration of refineries, chemical plants, and the toxic woes that come with them, regulators are undermanned and outsmarted at their best, and in the back pocket of Big Oil and Gas at their worst. A couple of months ago, I joined with other activists here in the Bayou State to urge that the federal Environmental Protection Agency take over for Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality, which for years has not been doing its job.

And DNR — the agency that could have much better protected the beleaguered residents of Bayou Corne — clearly failed as well here, too — big time. Change is required, and change is coming. On Wednesday, the cabinet secretary in charge of DNR, Scott Angelle, abruptly handed in his resignation. He didn’t give a reason. It’s unclear if the fiasco in Bayou Corne had anything to do with his unexpected departure. Indeed, nothing much is known about why, or about his replacement, Stephen Chustz, previously a mid-level official in the Office of Coastal Management.

What is clear is this: It’s not enough. DNR and the other state environmental regulators need a massive overhaul — not re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic — so that government will protect the people, and not Big Oil and Gas. Meanwhile, the nightmare in Bayou Corne is far from over. Stay tuned for updates — and pray for the best.

To read the original report in the Advocate about the state’s prior knowledge of potential problems at the salt cavern, go to:

To learn more about the potential grave risk of a butane explosion near the Bayou Corne sinkhole, please read:

News about the abrupt resignation of DNR Secretary Scott Angelle can be found here:

Read my recent post on the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and its request for an EPA takeover of DEQ:

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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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