La. aggressive over money for sinkhole — environmental protection, not so much


We’re beginning to see a pattern with the sinkhole in Bayou Corne, La., the environmental catastrophe that has kept families out of their homes since the summer. Remember, Louisiana regulators have mostly been asleep at the switch on this crisis from Day One. First, the bureaucrats ignored a very specific warning from the owners of the cavern that caused the sinkhole, Texas Brine Co., about significant problems there. Then, they were stunned and confused this summer when residents complained of earth tremors and strange odors. But now that the disaster has taken place, the state has found an issue it can sink its teeth into.

Collecting its money:

The state of Louisiana sent a $3.5 million bill to the Texas company it blames for a massive sinkhole that has swallowed more than 5 acres of land in Assumption Parish and contaminated an aquifer.

Attorney General Buddy Caldwell demanded payment from Texas Brine Co. LLC, saying it’s the tally so far of state response efforts to the sinkhole from six different agencies. The letter also names Occidental Chemical Co., from whom Texas Brine leased the site.

“The state reserves its right to submit additional demands for response costs incurred as a result of this incident, as well as any fines, penalties, fees or other costs authorized or allowed under state and federal law,” Caldwell wrote.

Caldwell said a lawsuit could be filed against the companies if payment isn’t made.

Now don’t get me wrong. Clearly, the Texas Brine Co. bears considerably liability for the disastrous chain of events in Bayou Corne, which is about 70 miles west of New Orleans. However, the push to punish the company financially comes as state environmental officials continue to display what seems to be a cavalier attitude toward the health and safety of local residents, who continue to complain of gases bubbling up from the swamp and strange rumblings.

The latest development is somewhat alarming:

Five miles as the crow flies from the Bayou Corne-area sinkhole near La. 1000, Petrodome Operating LLC is drilling for oil deep underground.

Petrodome is backed by an Australian company, Grand Gulf Energy Ltd., that has a trove of proprietary seismic data allowing the company and its partners to plumb strata a few miles off the Napoleonville Dome for oil and gas finds others have not tapped, company news releases and well records show.

Hydrocarbons have been known for decades to collect in pockets along the edges of massive upthrusts of salt like the Napoleonville Dome as the strata along their sides are deformed upward by the rising salt.

According to online state well records, Petrodome began drilling in late October after the Louisiana Office of Conservation issued the company a permit Aug. 17.

That’s two weeks after the sinkhole was found off the northwestern edge of the dome and an evacuation was ordered for 150 homes in the area.

The reasons this troubles me should be clear. The agencies dealing with the mess, including the state’s Department of Natural Resources and its much-maligned Department of Environmental Quality, have yet to fully come to terms with what is taking place underneath the bayou. Past mining activities have raised questions about the wider integrity and safety of the Napoleonville Dome. The hardly seems the time to approve new drilling, even at a distance of five miles.

Ironically, the state is imposing new safety measures on Texas Brine:

Texas Brine has been ordered to install a network of observation wells and pressure monitoring wells in the area. Conservation Commissioner James Welsh also ordered Texas Brine to install in-home methane detectors and upgrade ventilation systems for slab-foundation homes and buildings in the area where underground gas has accumulated.

“The steps outlined in this directive will give us an added layer of protection in ensuring public safety and move the response effort closer to bringing the lives of the residents of the Bayou Corne area back to normal,” Welsh said in a news release. About 350 area residents are under an evacuation order.

I’ll say it again — the state needs to do more. This isn’t just a Texas Brine problem anymore. This is a Bayou Corne problem — and there needs to be wider restrictions on oil, gas, and related activities in the entire area.

 To learn more about the state of Louisiana billing Texas Brine Co., check out:

To find out about state regulators allowing drilling to continue near the sinkhole site, go to:

To read about the new state safety measures imposed on the Texas Brine Co., please read:–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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