They’ll be home for Christmas in Bayou Corne — but only in their dreams


There can be something magical about Christmas in the Louisiana bayou. But not this year — not in the small community of Bayou Corne, some 70 miles west of New Orleans. Here. some 150 families have been forced out of their homes since the brutally hot dog days of summer, back in August — and they still don’t know when they’re coming back. Efforts to fix the environmental crisis that’s caused a massive sinkhole in the town are now revealing major problems with methane and other pollution, and people are getting frustrated.

Earlier in the meeting, one resident shouted at Bruce Martin, Texas Brine vice president of operations — first from afar and then in his face — challenging Martin’s statement that he, Martin, had been in the community since shortly after the sinkhole was found on Aug. 3.

Tapping the shoulders of other residents sitting in the audience, Gary Metrejean, 47, a Bayou Corne evacuee now living in Belle Chasse, asked Martin, one-by-one, if he knew those people.

“If you have been involved since day one, why don’t you know these people? I’m serious. Why you don’t know these people? Does Texas Brine have any compassion for the people that they affect?” Metrejean wanted to know.

Martin assured Metrejean he did know the residents.

Metrejean disagreed.

“I don’t believe you do. I don’t believe you do. I believe it’s the bottom line. It’s the money,” Metrejean said.

It’s little surprise that residents of Bayou Corne aren’t filled with Christmas cheer. They had filed into a community meeting on Tuesday night to get an update from the Texas Brine Co. and government officials on the ongoing effort to stabilize the massive collapsing salt cavern — that not only caused the sinkhole but led to earth tremors and has polluted the region’s air. They were shocked to learn that displaced residents may not be able to go home until the middle of 2013.

In addition, the extent to which homes have been rendered uninhabitable by methane is still not known. The Advocate is reporting that local Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche urged Texas Brine Co. to consider buyouts for the beleaguered homeowners as he criticized the handling of methane venting from the collapsed cavern. An environmental expert working with the state said “that not only slab-foundation homes are at risk from methane gas rising from underground sources, but also some homes elevated on piers. He said a recent review by an indoor toxicology expert Shaw Environmental has hired indicated that residences and mobile homes on piers, in which the crawl spaces beneath the floors are enclosed, may be at more risk than slab-foundation homes from gas accumulation.”

State officials who ignored warnings nearly two years ago that there were serious potential problems with the Texas Brine Co. cavern are now racing to penalize the company — in a serious case of too little and too late:

The Louisiana Office of Conservation has levied an additional $160,000 fine against Texas Brine Co. LLC. over a massive sinkhole.

Commissioner James Welsh said the fine levied Dec. 17 is for continued failure to comply with his directives for an 8-acre sinkhole and oil and methane releases in northern Assumption Parish.

Welsh fined the Houston company $80,000 for failing to install a containment system around the brine-filled, oil-tinged sinkhole near Bayou Corne, and another $80,000 for failing to install in-home methane monitors and home ventilation systems in slab foundation structures in the area.

The Advocate reports the new fines come in addition to $100,000 in fines Welsh issued on Dec. 1 and bring total company fines in relation to the sinkhole response to $260,000.

These fines are the proverbial drop in the bucket when compared to the havoc that’s been wreaked on this unfortunate working-class community. As I’ve said before, these homeowners need legal help, because this mess is going to take years — and a lot of expertise and hard work — to unravel. Let’s pray that they will be able to celebrate Christmas in their own home — next year.

For the Advocate’s coverage of angry residents learning they may not return home until 2013, check out:

To read the Insurance Journal article about additional fines levied by the state of Louisiana, please go to:

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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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