Jindal: Buyouts in line for sinkhole evacuees

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks during a news conference Wednesday following a meeting with Texas Brine Co. LLC officials about the sinkhole in Assumption Parish. Jindal said Texas Brine will start making buyout offers for homeowners under evacuation orders in the Bayou Corne area.
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks during a news conference Wednesday following a meeting with Texas Brine Co. LLC officials about the sinkhole in Assumption Parish. Jindal said Texas Brine will start making buyout offers for homeowners under evacuation orders in the Bayou Corne area.

Texas Brine Co. LLC, owner of a failed salt-dome cavern suspected of causing a large sinkhole in Assumption Parish, committed Wednesday to start talks with evacuated residents on optional property buyouts that would be completed “in weeks, not months,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said.

He said the company would hire a third-party appraiser to assess the value of residents’ homes and would begin meeting with residents on Monday.

“I think this is a positive step. Obviously, we’re going to monitor the actual progress in this process to make sure it is done in the best interests of the residents. The proof will be in the actual results,” Jindal told reporters.

He also announced during a news conference at the Governor’s Mansion that a commission of experts would be appointed to determine the long-term stability of the Bayou Corne area. The state will install an enhanced road and bridge monitoring system for the critical La. 70 South corridor at the expense of Texas Brine, he said.

Jindal also called on Texas Brine to settle its accounts with state and local governments that together have spent millions of dollars responding to the sinkhole emergency.

The announcements came after a meeting with Assumption Parish officials, Texas Brine President Ted Grabowski and other company executives at the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge.

The Texas Brine cavern collapsed deep underground last year, leading to the formation of the sinkhole near the Bayou Corne community and the release of crude oil and gas from deep natural formations.

Residents of about 150 residences in the Bayou Corne community and vicinity have been under an evacuation order for more than seven months. Many have been asking for a buyout. Some were pleased with Wednesday’s announcement.

“I am tickled to death,” said Henry Welch, 66, a former Walker resident who retired to Bayou Corne eight years ago.

Welch, a plaintiff in one of four consolidated federal lawsuits filed over the sinkhole, evacuated to a small camper trailer in a recreational vehicle park in Pierre Part. He said he recently bought a new house and is waiting for the purchase to be completed.

He said Texas Brine would have to go through his attorney to discuss his property.

Jindal has been under pressure from some residents to visit the community, which he says he plans to do sometime next week, and take a more active role in the state’s response. The sinkhole, which was discovered Aug. 3, also has drawn the interest of celebrity environmental activist Erin Brockovich and her team of plaintiff’s attorneys, who are planning another lawsuit on behalf of Bayou Corne property owners affected by the sinkhole emergency.

When a reporter noted that some residents feel Jindal should have gotten involved sooner, he replied that he has been involved, but behind the scenes.

Jindal said Texas Brine management had been telling his office for months that measures such as the road monitoring and buyouts were coming, but never did happen, even as committed deadlines passed.

“It has finally gotten to the point where we said, ‘Enough’s enough. We need to just get the president in here and say, “This has to happen.” ’ It should have happened a long time ago,” Jindal said.

Grabowski issued a statement saying the company strongly supports formation of the expert panel, which would be appointed by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources to determine when it would be safe for residents to return. Grabowski also confirmed the company’s plan to start talking with residents who want a buyout, but said the company would have to follow guidelines set by U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey.

Grabowski said the guidelines would apply to residents whether or not they have hired attorneys because all residents are potential members of a yet-to-be-formed class of plaintiffs in the cases filed in U.S. District Court in New Orleans.

The Texas Brine statement said Zainey indicated company representatives could start talking with residents after Friday.

Blayne Honeycutt, one of the lead plaintiff’s attorneys, said the attorneys and Texas Brine are working on a “protocol” laying out settlements for property, damages and other claims in the cases.

That protocol is not due to Judge Zainey until May 7, but Honeycutt said he was hopeful it could be worked out sooner than that.

Honeycutt called the proposed buyout talks “a good first step.”

“The proof’s in the pudding whether or not they make a good offer to resolve the case, but it would nice to start working the protocol out,” Honeycutt said.

Jindal said state officials did not have to issue legal threats Wednesday to get Texas Brine to offer buyouts.

“But we did let them know before they were coming to the meeting that we were expecting buyouts. We were demanding buyouts and that ‘no’ was not an acceptable answer,” the governor said.

Officials with the Louisiana Office of Conservation previously said they had little authority to require Texas Brine to buy evacuees’ property. Jindal asserted the state did have legal authority through the permitting process and would have more such authority through legislative changes being considered.

Jindal said Texas Brine officials plan to meet with Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development officials on Thursday to discuss the La. 70 South monitoring system. La. 70 South is a major traffic artery serving northern Assumption Parish.

Jindal left open the possibility that Texas Brine could propose a superior monitoring system in lieu of the $750,000 version now under discussion but said the state would give Texas Brine only a few days to make an offer.

In a related development Wednesday, a “spasmodic burst” of micro-earthquakes near the failed Texas Brine cavern and different types of tremors to the west of that Bayou Corne site have led to a halt in sinkhole response operations in the close vicinity of the slurry hole, parish officials said.

John Boudreaux, director of the Assumption Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said work had ceased Wednesday morning in the 71-acre swamp area within a containment berm under construction around the sinkhole.

He said the micro-earthquakes were continuing about every 15 minutes.

He said they are believed to be near the failed cavern that is known as Oxy Geismar No. 3, and not near a second Texas Brine cavern for which structural concerns have also been raised recently.

University of Memphis earthquake researcher Steve Horton reported that the “spasmodic burst” of more than 90 micro earthquakes happened about 1:34 a.m. Wednesday, parish officials disclosed in the blog post.

The micro quakes have also been called sharp tremors and are tied to rock movement underground.

Horton also reported Wednesday the detection of different kinds of tremors, known as very long period events. They have been associated with gas or fluid movement through a collapse zone in rock next to the failed cavern, parish officials have said.

These events were detected west of the sinkhole, maps show.