The Unsung Disaster - Exclusive Week


By Zachary Schepis

Photo courtesy of Hendrik Dacquin.

It’s like something out of a nightmare. A geophysical nightmare. The surrounding landscape is flooded with groundwater, and a small raft remains one of the only ways left to get up close. Without warning, a patch of the flood begins to bubble. A small grouping of trees nearby, rising some 40 feet above and out of the swamp-like terrain, quiver and lurch violently. It takes only a matter of seconds, and the trees have been completely sucked down into the earth – a display of power truly haunting to witness. The groundwater settles once more to a still calm.

Trees aren’t the only fodder this giant sinkhole has an appetite for. Late one night in August of last year, after months of mysterious seismic activity and various reports of bubbling on the bayou, a sinkhole formed beneath the town of Bayou Corne, Louisiana. This led to an immediate evacuation of the county’s 350 residents, many of whom are still displaced, and trying to find their way nearly a year later.

When it first opened, the sinkhole was roughly an acre wide. Now it is 24 acres, and close to 750 feet deep.

Tim Murphy, a reporter for Mother Jones, spent months living on the bayou and talking with the traumatized evacuees. He took these experiences and put them together in a moving account of the destruction. Many of these former residents still continue to meet at the Assumption Parish Library, where they come together to discuss the literal rift that has opened in their lives.

“One resident showed me a bullet-riddled keep-out sign he’d posted in his yard as a warning to Texas Brine,” Murphy tells BTR. “The evacuation has stirred a lot of really strong emotions. I don’t think, fortunately, most of us really know what it’s like to have your community taken away.”

So what exactly happened at Bayou Corne?

This is the question that landowners, big businesses, and the state of Louisiana have been asking together with little success. What is known: the petrochemical company Texas Brine owned an operation, roughly three miles wide and a mile deep, on a salt deposit called the Napoleonville Dome in Bayou Corne. Texas Brine utilizes a process known as injection mining to pump brine to the surface, which is then later refined to manufacture paper and medical supplies, among other products. One of the salt caverns excavated for this process collapsed, thus spawning the beast.

The worst enemy, however, is invisible. As a result of the collapse, tens of millions of cubic feet of explosive gases have been released; infiltrating the aquifer and making their way to the community.

Texas Brine has been scrambling in the wake to cover their tracks as cleanly as possible. Following on the heels of the evacuation orders, many of the residents who were affected most by the disaster started receiving weekly checks from Texas Brine amounting to the order of $875. The majority of homeowners in Bayou Corne have agreed to sell their properties to the company. As of early last month, Texas Brine closed on 43 of the 65 who had agreed to settle.

“It was profound to realize just how routine the process was,” Murphy tells BTR. “A 26-acre sinkhole is obviously new, but industrial buyouts are quite common in these situations. You literally only had to drive a quarter mile to find a settlement that’s been wiped off the map by the industry. The only sign of life there now is a derelict turtle farm.”

Why is it that so many people haven’t heard of this tragedy? Is Bayou Corne on its way to becoming another sad ghost amongst our countries’ canon of unsung disasters?

There are some who are pushing to bring this event to the eyes of the public. Mary Titus runs a blog called The Bugle, which seeks to compile all of the hard-to-find news imaginable surrounding the Louisiana sinkhole, including court documents, press releases, and scientific journals, among many more resources. The site has been documenting the phenomenon since the first bubbles appeared in 2012, and continues to diligently track the ensuing debris.

“The blog was meant to be a simple way to organize scientific information, maps and documents relating to the ‘sinkhole’ as it first hit the news,” Titus tells BTR. “I absolutely did not think it would explode to be as big as it is today.”

Titus is quick to remark, however, that despite the surplus of information available regarding the incident it comes as little surprise that many journalists have decided to stick to safer waters.

“Many, many readers have contacted me via the blog,” Titus tells BTR, “and the occasional press inquiry. But it seems as though the commercial media has so many constraints on what [journalists] are allowed to say. Just the power of ‘big energy’ and energy-owned media. I don’t blame hapless writers for self-censorship.”

Disclosure may be tightening as legal matters continue to escalate. On August 2, Governor Bobby Jindal and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell announced that the state of Louisiana will be suing Texas Brine, along with principal landowner Occidental Chemical Corporation, for damages resulting from the cavern collapse.

“The good thing about a big lawsuit,” explains Titus, “is that it brings to light ‘secret’ info the public is usually not allowed to see. The case will probably be delayed, etc. – but for the public, researchers and journals, it can be the only chance to see some important documents.”

“It’s always interesting to watch these things play out,” Murphy tells BTR, “but this one is a fairly straightforward attempt to recoup cleanup costs. Texas Brine has already spent a lot of money on this; the state thinks it should be spending more. The real drama is in the civil lawsuits being considered.”

Texas Brine is steadfast in maintaining that they are not responsible for the sinkhole damages. Sonny Cranch controls media relations for Texas Brine, and took some time out of his busy schedule to talk briefly with BTR about levying some of the impending responsibility.

“It should be noted first that there have been no deaths or injuries resulting from this event,” Cranch tells BTR. “None. Also, approximately 45% of the residents chose not to evacuate and have stayed in their homes because they feel there is no imminent threat.”

Cranch offers BTR his own theory as to what may have transpired.

“After a review of the 3D seismic study of the deep geology, it is clear that 50 yards of salt remain between the wall of the cavern and the face of the salt dome,” Cranch explains. “No clear collapse zone or breach point can be identified. My theories are being explored, several of which center on changes in the pressure matrix outside the dome at 5,000 feet related to activities over which Texas Brine had no control. The bottom line is that it will be extremely difficult for anyone to claim that Texas Brine was negligent.”

With the verdict still impending, Murphy looks towards preventative measures to keep disasters like this from ever happening again.

“The takeaway from Bayou Corne is that we really don’t know what’s going on beneath our feet, and in this case, experts are still trying to figure out exactly what happened,” Murphy tells BTR. “Given that, it’s tough to nail down any clear policy prescriptions, but it’s fair to say that residents should be informed when this kind of operation is going on underneath their homes—something Louisiana now requires but didn’t previously.”

“I hope the situation dies down,” says Titus. “But it looks like the disaster will only grow.”

For the former residents of Bayou Corne this is old news.

“No, the quality of their lives doesn’t really seem to be improving,” Murphy tells BTR. “They make quite clear that Bayou Corne was their life, and anything that falls short of that is a serious blow.”