Petition requests White House action on sinkhole

An online petition created Saturday asks the Obama administration to declare the Assumption Parish sinkhole a federal emergency and assign a federal team of experts to the state to help with relief efforts.

“There is no light at the end of the tunnel for when they can return home, or have any kind of closure from this nightmare,” the petition says of those living in the communities near the sinkhole who were evacuated in August.

“This is not just a hole in the ground, and requires more resources than the state has at their disposal,” the petition says.

The creator of the petition is only identified as “Alicia H. of Pierre Part.” The people who have signed the petition have only provided their first name, last initial and hometown. The petition had 57 signatures as of 6 p.m. Sunday. Many of the petitioners are from Louisiana, but some hail from states as far away as Washington and New York.

The petition says there must be 25,000 signatures by Feb. 4 to receive a response from the White House.

The sinkhole, discovered Aug. 3, is between the Grand Bayou and Bayou Corne communities in Assumption Parish.

Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency in Louisiana shortly after the sinkhole was found. Occupants of more than 150 residences in the area were ordered to evacuate immediately.

Scientists have said they believe a Napoleonville Dome cavern owned by Texas Brine Co. LLC, of Houston, had a major wall failure that caused the 8.5 acre sinkhole and released crude oil and methane in the Grand Bayou and Bayou Corne areas.

John Achee Jr., a community activist who signed the petition, said residents want the federal government to exercise more oversight in the state’s response to the sinkhole.

“The governor normally would be the one to request the federal assistance,” he said. “But he’s not involved at all. I don’t see him asking for the federal assistance.”

Achee also said Texas Brine has been “making a mockery out of the state,” pointing to a lawsuit the company recently filed in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge to block directives made Dec. 7 by the Louisiana Office of Conservation.

Those directives include the installation of a protection system around the sinkhole to prevent the release of contaminants into nearby waterways and “in-home” monitors to detect possible natural gas accumulations and improve home ventilation for all slab foundations in the area.

“Everybody all along believes that we should have some kind of federal people in here handling this,” Achee said.

Louisiana officials on Sunday heaped praise on the state agencies’ response to the sinkhole and placed the blame for the slow response to it squarely on Texas Brine.

Patrick Courreges, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, said state officials have been in constant contact with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since the sinkhole was found.

EPA officials visited Assumption Parish in August and October and helped provide aerial scans of the sinkhole to search for any chemical releases in the area, Courreges said.

The U.S. Geological Survey has monitored seismic activity around the sinkhole, and officials from Sandia National Laboratories, the U.S. Department of Energy’s experts on salt dome cavern activity, have provided advice to state agencies, Courreges said.

State officials “have been on the ground every day in Assumption Parish, and will continue this coordinated effort until we get to the bottom of the problems caused by Texas Brine’s failed cavern,” Courreges said in a statement.

Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Bates said in an emailed statement Sunday that the governor regularly receives updates from state agencies about response efforts in Assumption Parish.

Jindal ordered state officials “to Bayou Corne to provide constant oversight, work with parish officials to resolve this situation and hold Texas Brine accountable for the problems caused by its failed cavern,” Bates said.

Interim Department of Natural Resources Secretary Stephen Chustz said in a telephone interview Sunday that Texas Brine continues to fail to meet safety deadlines set by the state.

“If they can’t meet those deadlines, they need to seriously consider buying out those folks in Bayou Corne who feel that their safety is threatened and want to leave,” Chustz said.

Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said Sunday that the company is continuing to work to meet all directives set by the state.

“We are well aware of the buyout issue, but currently we are devoting all of our resources to responding to the orders issued by the Department of Natural Resources,” he said.

The petition can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/bkw86x6.