Erin Brockovich takes on sinkhole case

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Environmental activist Erin Brockovich asks for a show of hands by property owners as she begins addressing a community  meeting at the American Legion Hall in Pierre Part focusing on legal issues related to the emergence of the Napoleonville Dome sinkhole seven months ago..
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Environmental activist Erin Brockovich asks for a show of hands by property owners as she begins addressing a community meeting at the American Legion Hall in Pierre Part focusing on legal issues related to the emergence of the Napoleonville Dome sinkhole seven months ago..

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich told a group of Bayou Corne residents on Saturday that standing up and taking legal action against the company that owns a failed salt dome cavern believed to have caused the Assumption Parish sinkhole is the only way they will find relief from the emergency.

“For those of you who are there, I want you to really consider your safety and why you’re there,” she said. “For those of you who have left, it is time to stand up and say, individually, as a community, as this homeowner, ‘I’m going to take some action,’ and that’s why we’re here.”

Brockovich delivered her remarks during a community meeting at the American Legion Hall on La. 70 in Pierre Part, where she and Los Angeles lawyers Thomas V. Girardi and Bob Bowcock fielded a litany of legal questions from the standing-room-only crowd.

The sinkhole was discovered Aug. 3 in a swampland area between Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou. About 350 residents nearby remain under evacuation orders.

Scientists believe the failure of a Texas Brine Co. LLC cavern caused the sinkhole and related developments, including release of crude oil as well as natural gas bubbling up in nearby bayous.

Girardi, with whom Brockovich has worked for years, has been retained by at least 50 homeowners in the Bayou Corne community.

Brockovich was portrayed by actress Julia Roberts in the 2000 feature film “Erin Brockovich,” which tells the story of Brockovich’s fight against a California power plant in the exposure of nearby residents to contaminated ground water.

Brockovich and Girardi secured a $333 million settlement for 650 residents of Hinkley, Calif.

Brockovich said in a media gathering after the forum that Bayou Corne residents contacted her shortly after the sinkhole was found.

She said she was contacted again recently by some of those residents, who invited her to visit Louisiana to address them.

“They didn’t feel they were getting their questions answered,” she said. “Immediately, they were frightened. They didn’t know what was going on.”

Brockovich and Girardi both placed much of the blame for the residents’ concerns and other sinkhole-related issues on Texas Brine.

During the meeting, Girardi said that by now, Texas Brine should have taken more responsibility and offered more help to the evacuated residents.

He said that when he first heard of the situation, he believed Texas Brine and Occidental Corp., which leases a Napoleonville Dome site containing the broached underground cavern to Texas Brine, would have reached out more to residents by now.

“There ain’t no chance of that,” he said.

Girardi accused Texas Brine of knowing that there was a possibility a sinkhole might develop well before it actually happened.

“These people knew what the hell was going on for a long time,” he said, referring to Texas Brine. “Absolutely, positively, without a doubt, and we’ve got the proof of it.”

Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said Saturday that the company had no comment about Brockovich’s and Girardi’s statements at the meeting.

Girardi said his office already has written a draft of a complaint against Texas Brine that his law firm wishes to file in court in the next three weeks. He said he is not sure yet if the state will get dragged into the litigation.

Five lawsuits were filed last year by residents and large landowners in state and federal courts over the sinkhole. Texas Brine has worked 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 landowners originally in state court, from federal court back to the 23rd Judicial District Court, which encompasses Assumption, Ascension and St. James parishes.

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 plantiffs plan their own meeting with their clients Tuesday, Blayne Honeycutt, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, has said.

Girardi told the residents he would prefer to keep the suits separate, and not form a class action case, because different residents are suffering varying levels of injuries.

He also said their cases are better off in state court than federal court.

Girardi indicated that his normal fee for handling such litigation is 25 percent of any settlement, but that if Texas Brine agrees to settle, he’d drop his fee to 10 percent.

Alvin Gros, 49, who has lived in Bayou Corne for at least 15 years, said he already had retained Girardi as his attorney after hearing about him three months ago through friends.

Gros said he appreciated Saturday’s gathering because of what he heard Brockovich, Girardi and Bowcock saying.

“I think they’ve got a lot more signing today,” he said.

Susie and Clarence Hernandez, both 82, first bought a home in Bayou Corne in 1984. They said lived there until the evacuation order kicked in and are now living in Denham Springs.

The Hernandezes said they appreciated the information they were provided during Saturday’s meeting.

However, Susie Hernandez said she and her husband have not decided if they will retain an attorney.

“They said some things that I had not heard before,” Susie Hernandez said. “I think they would be a good firm to enlist.”

Editor’s note: This story was modified on March 11, 2013, to correct the ages of Susie and Clarence Hernandez. They are both 82, not 62. The Advocate regrets the error.