Texas Brine fined $100,000

Screen shot from State Police video -- The Assumption Parish sinkhole is shown in this Nov. 30 flyover video made by Louisiana State Police.
Screen shot from State Police video -- The Assumption Parish sinkhole is shown in this Nov. 30 flyover video made by Louisiana State Police.

The state Department of Natural Resources said Saturday it has fined a Houston-based company $100,000 for failing to obey several safety directives the state issued Nov. 12 regarding the sinkhole in Assumption Parish.

James Welsh, the commissioner of the Office of Conservation in the Department of Natural Resources, sent Texas Brine Co. LLC a letter Nov. 12 detailing those orders when amending an emergency declaration issued in August.

In another letter dated Saturday, Welsh told Texas Brine it failed to comply with some of the requirements the state had set.

Texas Brine has been assessed civil penalties of:

Texas Brine must pay the fines immediately and comply with all the provisions of the Nov. 12 orders or else face further penalties, a news release from DNR says.

“Texas Brine needs to accept its civic responsibility, react quickly and act with urgency to protect the citizens and environment of the Bayou Corne area,” Welsh said in a statement. “We will not stand unwarranted delays in the effort to return the lives of the people of this community to normal.”

Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said the company received the letter Saturday morning.

“It will be reviewed by our attorney on Monday,” Cranch said. “He will respond appropriately.”

The 8-acre swampland sinkhole between the Grand Bayou and Bayou Corne communities in Assumption Parish has gradually increased in surface size ever since it was discovered Aug. 3.

Occupants of more than 150 residences in the area were ordered to evacuate immediately because of concerns for their safety. The order is still in place.

Scientists have said they believe a Napoleonville Dome cavern owned by Texas Brine had a major wall failure that caused the sinkhole and released crude oil and methane in the Grand Bayou and Bayou Corne areas.

The large underground salt formation was pushed up vertically from ancient sea beds and, for decades, industry has used the dome for brine production. The perimeter has also been the focus of intensive oil and gas exploration.

Hollowed from the solid salt formation, caverns left by brine production are often used later for storage of natural gas, butane and other hydrocarbons. Brine is used for several industrial processes.

When asked Friday if state officials are investigating whether Texas Brine violated any state regulations in its handling of the cavern, DNR spokesman Patrick Courreges said officials’ ongoing study of the sinkhole situation will help determine if any violations occurred.

“Texas Brine and any other responsible parties will be held accountable for all damages caused by its failed cavern and any violations found during the course of the response and investigation,” Courreges said in an email.

Texas Brine was ordered by the state to drill an observation well to assess the cause and scope of the sinkhole.

The company, along with contractors working for the Office of Conservation, also have drilled vent wells to remove methane collecting in an underground aquifer in the area.

Texas Brine shut off one of its two vent wells after officials discovered Nov. 19 that a small amount of hydrogen sulfide gas was leaking to the surface via the well. The company has set in motion a plan to permanently seal the well.

State Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell issued a demand letter Nov. 8 to Texas Brine and Occidental Chemical Corp., which leases the site to Texas Brine, seeking payment for $3.47 million in costs run up by state agencies dealing with the sinkhole emergency.

State officials also have said they are investigating whether Texas Brine illegally disposed of naturally occurring radioactive material inside the Napoleonville Dome in the mid-1990s.

In a related development, the Assumption Parish Police Jury said in a blog post Saturday that another community briefing about the about the sinkhole emergency is scheduled for 7 p.m. Dec. 18 at the St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church hall in Pierre Part.

Advocate staff writer David J. Mitchell contributed to this report.