Sinkhole leads to finger-pointing
Texas Brine Co. of Houston asserted late on the night of Sept. 24 that regional earthquakes damaged its salt cavern in the Bayou Corne area of Assumption Parish.
Less than 12 hours after that 10:31 p.m. news release, the company was on the receiving end of a vigorous response from Louisiana Department of Natural Resources and parish officials to rebut the claim that the cavern failure was caused by natural causes and also to call on Texas Brine to back up its claim.
The cavern is suspected of failing and causing a 4-acre sinkhole between the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou areas that prompted a mandatory evacuation. Natural gas releases in area waterways and tremors preceded the sinkhole by two months and have continued.
The largest recorded earthquake in Louisiana history did, in fact, occur northwest of Napoleonville on Oct. 19, 1930.
Before seismic monitoring started, when questions about Bayou Corne tremors were being raised, DNR officials took note of that 4.2 temblor and the role of ongoing subsidence in Louisiana.
But DNR officials have since said that subsequent seismic data shows Texas Brine’s claim last month had it backward.
The “USGS consensus” is that the seismic activity was a consequence of the cavern collapse, not its cause, DNR reported.
Texas Brine declined comment initially, but spokesman Sonny Cranch has since said the company is sending to DNR data backing up its view on the origins of the cavern failure and does not plan to retract its statements.
What this episode reveals, besides some differences of opinion among those working together to solve the issue, is the effort to frame an incident that has attracted lots of media attention and prompted questions about the use and oversight of the Napoleonville and other salt domes in Louisiana.
The sinkhole also has sparked three civil lawsuits, including at least one that names both DNR and Texas Brine as defendants.
The effort to dispute Texas Brine’s theory ended with a quickly called community meeting in Bayou Corne on the evening of Sept. 25.
Before heavy media coverage, Assumption Parish Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche called on Texas Brine to retract claims aimed at avoiding corporate liability.
Triche and interim DNR Secretary Stephen Chustz also found fault with Texas Brine for making its information public late at night on Sept. 24 before sharing it with the agencies trying to let their conclusions follow the still-developing scientific data.
But DNR and parish officials themselves twice issued joint news statements in mid-August taking aim at Texas Brine over the claimed slow pace of retroactive housing assistance payments to evacuees.
Each time, the news releases blasting Texas Brine came without advance consultation with the Houston company and had the effect of likely blunting what would have otherwise been less-negative coverage for Texas Brine.
Just five days before the Sept. 25 community meeting to rebut Texas Brine, parish and state officials declined to attend a community meeting in Pierre Part called by John Achee Jr. while they watched for a drill hole finally to pierce the Texas Brine cavern.
Achee has himself become another, unofficial source of information and opinion through Facebook and websites, often critical of DNR and the parish.
During the Sept. 20 meeting, Achee and others complained that DNR and other officials were not doing enough to share more information about what was happening in their community.
David J. Mitchell covers the River Parishes for The Advocate. He can be reached at email@example.com.