Torn on the bayou: Sinkhole keeps getting bigger, more dangerous


A lot has happened over the last few weeks. In the political world, the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney sees a new kerfuffle every few hours. Down here in Louisiana, we’ve been whacked by Hurricane Isaac, and on the environmental front we’re still trying to get BP to pay its fair share for all the havoc it’s wreaked in the Gulf. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed much all this time.

That dangerous sinkhole in Bayou Corne, about seventy miles west of New Orleans, is still there. In fact, it’s getting bigger almost every day. And residents of the small rural community are still alarmed at fresh bubbles coming up from under the ground, and they want answers.

Here’s some of the latest news from the Louisiana bayou:

BAYOU CORNE — The outer edge of a sinkhole in Assumption Parish has caved in for a second time in three days, parish officials said Thursday.

A 25-foot-long section of embankment fell in Thursday morning after a 200-foot-long section had fallen in Tuesday evening, parish officials said in blog posts this week.

The sinkhole was found on the property of Texas Brine Co. LLC of Houston on Aug. 3 and has had occasional edge collapses since then, a situation Texas Brine and Louisiana Department of Natural Resources officials have said is expected.

State and local officials say there’s nothing to worry about, but why would we trust them at this stage of the game. Let us never forget that it was the embattled Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, that all but ignored complaints from nearby neighbors of bubbling gases and shaking homes for weeks before the sinkhole actually appeared, and only then officials remembered that Texas Brine had already reported to them potential problems at its salt dome, back in 2011. One of the latest collapses took place near one of the many pipelines crossing the area.

Louisiana Environmental Action Network, or LEAN, is doing a better job staying on top of the situation than the government officials, which unfortunately is fairly typical here in the Sportsman’s Paradise. They reported yesterday that another 25 feet slid into the deep hole, as trees, too, continue to slide into the abyss. Environmental health expert Wilma Subra continues to sample the site. You can see some of the results here — she concludes her report with this warning:

State of Louisiana data shows that hydrocarbons in the sink hole sludge are dangerously elevated, while radiation levels exceeded background by only a small amount.  Based on this limited testing, this sinkhole sludge is a hazard because of the presence of the diesel fuel, which can contaminate air and groundwater. Hydrocarbon levels may also be in the flammable range.

Radiation is still a concern.  The State of Louisiana found much higher levels of radiation in deeper parts of   the sink hole than the place where we received our surface sample.  There is enough radiation present to show that natural underground radioactive material has been concentrated in the sink hole.  Even though the diesel hydrocarbons are currently the greater hazard, radiation testing should continue.

Residents who attended a community meeting Thursday night are frustrated with waiting for answers:

Allen Hill, 66, a retired petrochemical industry worker, questioned the length of time for tests to fingerprint or provide a blueprint of the chemical makeup of the natural gas releases, for example.

“Natural gas is coming out of the ground everywhere. We have yet to identify the source of this natural gas. It’s a massive amount of gas that is coming out of here. I don’t think there is enough that’s sitting in that cavern to go as far and as long as this has,” Hill said.

“Why have we not been able to get a blueprint of this gas and go back to this cavern and all these sources around here?” Hill wanted to know.

Hill asserted in a later interview that such testing can be done in hours by industry experts.

Of course, the state and company officials who could have provided some answers at that meeting didn’t even bother to show up. That’s alarming. In the months ahead, it will be necessary and important to sort out how such a environmental catastrophe took place, who to blame, and how to make sure something like this does not happen again. But before that, Texas Brine and Louisiana officials need to stabilize the situation, and make sure that Bayou Corne stays on the map.

For news of the recent expansion of the sinkhole, please read:

To read Wilma Subra’s research for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, go to:

To read about Thursday’s community meeting in Bayou Corne, please go to:

 © 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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