Louisiana covers up risk to Bayou town from sinkhole, massive methane leak


Here we go again.

Once again, a  corner of Louisiana is under an environmental assault, threatening both the health and the immediate safety of local residents. Once again, the cause appears to be the careless practices of Big Energy as it races to exploit the rich bounty of natural resources in the Bayou State. And once again, Louisiana state officials in the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal are working harder to downplay and even cover up the extent of the problen, rather than acknowledge the grave risks to a bayou community.

This real-time crisis is unfolding in a place called Bayou Corne, a swampy area in the heart of Cajun country, 70 miles west of New Orleans as the crow flies. Like much of this part of the world, the area around Bayou Corne has long been exploited for its natural resources. For two decades, a firm called Texas Brine Co. LLC operated a large salt mining cavern underground here, where salt was extracted and the briny water sold to oil and gas customers. The site was abandoned last year, and there are conflicting reports whether the cavern may have been used to store natural gas, a process that has been known to cause problems in the past.

A couple of months ago, residents of this rural community in south-central Louisiana started to realize that something had gone very, very wrong. First came strong odors that smalled like diesel fuel, then tremors where the ground beneath them shook. Earthquakes are unheard of in this a delta of the Mississippi. In late June, environmental activists who visited the area found a dozen spots of bubbling water where it appeared that methane, propane, and ethane was escaping from underground. Despite these clear warning signs, officials failed to act forcefully on these reports. In fact they did nothing.

Then late last week, the earth near Bayou Corne began to open up. By Friday, there was a 200-by-200 foot sinkhole near Bayou Corne — several trees were swallowed by the large hole, and vegetation had been replaced by a slurry mixture of muddy water and soil. Local residents reported a hellish time:

“My home moved, and my home shook. My home moved, and I’m on cement,” Debra Charlet told WAFB news.

“Our houses shifting and cracks in our sheet rock and our foundation,” said another resident, Jason Hugh.

President Martin Triche told News 2 that he has asked the National Guard to assist with the evacuation.

On Friday, state officials issued an evacuation order; about 150 homes are affected. The order is mandatory, although residents who do not heed the order are not being removed forcefully. State officials said they are unsure how long it would remain in effect. The governor’s emergency proclamation extends through Sept. 2 unless terminated earlier.

So you might think that given the gravity of the crisis now, Louisiana officials would spring into action — especially when subsequent reports revealed that the sinkhole is also shifting some of the gas pipelines that criss-cross the Bayou Corne area, raising the risk of a catastrophic explosion. But if you think that, you haven’t been watching the environmental trainwreck that is the Jindal administration. Officials have been slow to divert traffic from the affected area, and now they’ve blocked the public from seeing real time information about possible methane hazards:

Saturday, a caller to Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s (LABB) Incident Map number, where residents telephone to report pollution events, stated that he “noticed a strong chemical ‘crude’ oil smell coming from the general vicinity of Belle Rose, one mile down the road from 1130 Highway 70 1130 Highway 7.”

Friday, a caller to LABB reported “bubbling in the bayou that appears that the swamp is turning inside out” and there was a “strong smell of burnt diesel fuel in the air.”

Despite that:

The agency tasked with protecting the public from environmental hazards, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has reversed its stand on continuing to provide its monitoring data of the Louisiana’s near Gulf Coast bayou area where gasses are bubbling and tremors shook houses Thursday.

Sad to say, this is yet another case of the Cajun chickens coming home to roost in Louisiana. All of the pathologies that we saw in BP’s Deepwater Horizon tragedy, and in so many oil-and-chemical pollution mishaps here in the state, are on display here: Shoddy, corner-cutting environmental practices from industry, wanton disregard for the health and welfare of a working-class community in the Deep South, a complete lack of regulation from the state’s sorry excuse of a so-called Department of Natural Resources, and now a bias by state officials at the highest levels to protect the liability of big business, and not the public.

I don’t believe a word they say about the environmental or human health risk of this mounting disaster. I’m sure this industry told the regulators and the public that these operations were perfectly safe. This is the same storyline that BP used for its Gulf of Mexico operations and the frackers are using today. The State of Louisiana approved these operations, negligently monitored them, and is now expected to be truthful about it. Fat chance — with the lawsuit bullseye squarely on the Jindal administration.

To watch a TV news report with video of the sinkhole, please go to: http://www.fox8live.com/story/19191265/gas-bubbles-up-in-bayou-corne-community

To read an initial report from Bayou Corne on the appearance of the sinkhole, go to: http://www.examiner.com/article/bayou-tremors-methane-leaks-months-before-oil-catastrophe-evacuation-ordered?CID=examiner_alerts_article

To read the latest about the danger of a pipeline explosion and the state move to block data, check out: http://www.examiner.com/article/bayou-officials-fear-giant-sinkhole-pipeline-explosion-stop-providing-data?CID=examiner_alerts_article

1 comment

  • you should have been at the public meeting tonight… what a farce. Our summarily incompetent or bought-and-paid-for DNR Director of Injection and Mining Mr. Joe Ball was asked wheter or not the tremendous amount of diesel that came up with the gas bubble when it broke the surface was proof enough that the culprit was the Texas Brine cavern. His reply? “well it could be risidual oil from long ago abadoned wels that was spilled on the ground, so we have no proof that it’s a Texas Brine problem.”
    Okay, Mr. Ball, if one DID spill diesel YEARS AGO, then why has it not evaporated in the hot louisiana sun? is this some magic diesel??
    When The DEQ rep was asked what were the ppm in the air on the Friday morning of the slurry formation when the smell of diesel was thick enough to gag a strong man, his reply? “oh, we weren’t moitering for that… what we did moniter showed absolutely no health hazard.

    These dufuses have been been to these meetings several times and have no clue what to do and no desire to do anything if they did have a plan.

    We need someone with a bit of courage from our govenor’s office to come here and mandate SOMEONE to drill several vent wells in the aquifer to vent off this tremendous amount of gas that has accumulated there from the vicinity of the cavern collapse.
    Will we get that???

    i doubt it

    A Bayou Corne resident, and Jindal supporter, for now


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

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