Assumption sinkhole case draws Brockovich

Advocate Staff Photo by Arthur D. Lauck -- Environmental legal activist Erin Brockovich speaks at the Baton Rouge Community College as part of the chancellor’s women’s lecture series in this March 2009 Advocate file photo.
Advocate Staff Photo by Arthur D. Lauck -- Environmental legal activist Erin Brockovich speaks at the Baton Rouge Community College as part of the chancellor’s women’s lecture series in this March 2009 Advocate file photo.

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich and a California attorney hired by 25 Assumption Parish residents evacuated due to a giant sinkhole near Bayou Corne are heading to Pierre Part on Saturday to talk to other residents about their legal options, the attorney said Monday.

Thomas V. Girardi, a personal injury lawyer in Los Angeles, said he and Brockovich will attend Saturday’s community meeting at the American Legion Hall, 3336 La. 70, Pierre Part, to answer questions about the Texas Brine sinkhole in northern Assumption Parish.

Brockovich was portrayed by actress Julia Roberts in the 2000 feature film “Erin Brockovich” shot by former Baton Rouge resident and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. It tells the story of then-legal clerk Brockovich’s fight against a California power plant in the exposure of nearby residents to contaminated ground water.

Girardi was one of the attorneys who worked with Brockovich and secured a $333 million settlement for 650 residents of Hinkley, Calif.

Brockovich, who is also a consultant, was not available for comment Monday but Girardi said he has continued to work with Brockovich on environmental cases because “she gets millions of calls from people from all over and she asks our firm to represent.”

Girardi said he has not yet filed lawsuits for his 25 clients but will be filing soon.

“We are still looking into it. Our investigation is still going on,” Girardi said.

Five lawsuits were filed last year by residents and large landowners in state and federal court over the sinkhole. Texas Brine has pushed to keep all the cases that were filed in state court in federal court.

Four of the cases have been consolidated in U.S. District Court in New Orleans before Judge Jay Zainey, including one state court case that the plaintiffs had previously sought to keep in Assumption Parish.

On Feb. 22, Zainey also moved the fifth case, which was filed on behalf of large landholders originally in state court, from federal court back to the 23rd Judicial District in Assumption.

A steering committee of plaintiff’s attorneys led by Denham Springs lawyer Calvin Fayard Jr. also has been established to help direct the federal litigation. The plaintiffs plan their own meeting with their clients Tuesday, said Blayne Honeycutt, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys.

The failure of a Texas Brine Co. LLC cavern, known as Oxy Geismar No. 3, is believed to be the cause of the sinkhole and other related developments, including gas becoming trapped underground in the vicinity of the sinkhole.

About 350 residents remain under evacuation orders in the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou communities.

In public presentations, scientists have said burping and tremors in the area are connected with the movement of fluids or gas through a zone of fractured rock next to the Napoleonville Dome, while different, sharp tremors are produced
by movement of sedimentary rock migrating into the failed cavern.

Located near the edge of the salt dome, the Texas Brine cavern underwent a sidewall collapse at a depth of more than 5,000 feet that has allowed millions of cubic yards of rock to flow into the brine-filled cavity. This shift in the earth led to the formation of the sinkhole, found Aug. 3 in a swampy area of northern Assumption Parish.

When asked about Girardi and Brockovich’s planned visit to Assumption Parish on Saturday, Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said Monday that the company had no comment.

Girardi said Monday that the residents whose lives have been affected by the sinkhole need some relief.

“It’s a terrible story. Those people have been totally wiped out. It’s more than losing a house; there’s the mortgage, the interest, it’s just a big mess,” Girardi said.

Girardi said he and Brockovich were asked to attend Saturday’s meeting by some of Girardi’s Assumption Parish clients in the sinkhole case.

“They said other people had questions and were interested in talking with us,” Girardi said.

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