Jindal to ensure sinkhole buyouts fair

Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Gov. Bobby Jindal, center, and Assumption Parish President Marty Triche, left, are surrounded Tuesday by Bayou Corne residents and members of the news media during Jindal's visit to Sportsman's Landing in Bayou Corne.
Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Gov. Bobby Jindal, center, and Assumption Parish President Marty Triche, left, are surrounded Tuesday by Bayou Corne residents and members of the news media during Jindal's visit to Sportsman's Landing in Bayou Corne.

Governor meets with residents

Gov. Bobby Jindal pledged Tuesday to hold Texas Brine Co. LLC’s “feet to the fire” over buyouts for residents affected by a growing, 13-acre sinkhole in northern Assumption Parish.

Jindal made the commitment Tuesday after he and parish leaders met privately with about two dozen residents for about 25 to 30 minutes in a mobile building at the sinkhole command post site off La. 70 South in Bayou Corne.

The visit was his first to Bayou Corne since mysterious gas bubbles were detected in bayou waterways in late May and followed Jindal’s meetings last week with Assumption Parish and Texas Brine officials amid criticism that the governor should visit the afflicted community.

Residents have been under a mandatory evacuation order since the sinkhole was found Aug. 3, more than seven months ago.

Jindal also flew over the sinkhole in a helicopter before he landed at the command post, later saying an oil sheen was visible from a recent belch and seismic activity related to the sinkhole, which is adjacent to the Napoleonville Dome. The dome is an underground mountain of crystallized salt formed millions of years ago.

Jindal told reporters in a news conference that followed his session with residents that proof Texas Brine would be meeting its commitments will depend on whether residents who evacuated voluntarily will accept the company’s buyout offers.

He also asserted the state has the legal authority to bring the company back to the negotiating table if the buyouts aren’t accepted.

“We’re going to hold their feet to the fire. We’re going to hold them accountable,” Jindal said during his news conference at Sportsman’s Landing, which sits beside Bayou Corne.

“The next step for them to show that they are dealing in good faith — that they have committed to doing — is to make reasonable buyout offers that are acceptable to people in this community,” Jindal said.

Jindal said the company has identified and scheduled meetings with 56 people who are not among the plaintiffs in various lawsuits filed against the company over the sinkhole.

Scientists believe a Texas Brine cavern inside the Napoleonville Dome had been carved too close to the western edge of the massive salt deposit and failed last year.

This caused the sinkhole to form, scientists believe, and released into a shallow aquifer under the area and to the surface crude oil and gas from natural traps alongside the salt dome.

During a community meeting that followed Jindal’s visit Tuesday night in Napoleonville, Texas Brine attorney Bradley Myers laid out the process for residents without legal counsel to begin negotiating with the company for buyouts and settlement of all other claims.

He said residents involved in litigation would follow a parallel but probably slower track.

Myers said that after residents fill out required forms, the company hopes have an appraiser make inspections and return an offer to the residents within 30 days of the inspection.

“Our plan is to have a proposal to the individual homeowner or resident with what we believe to be a fair and reasonable offer based upon an individual evaluation of your claim,” Myers said.

He said mediation, which the company would pay for, is an option if needed in negotiations.

Myers said the company would not use some multiple of home values, such as two or three times value, as the means of paying claims.

But in responding to a question from a resident, Myers said that he believed that residents engaged in negotiations that go past the one-year limit to file a lawsuit would not be barred from filing a lawsuit later.

But Myers, who cautioned during his talk that he was not giving legal advice, also suggested residents consult with an attorney if they had concerns.

When asked later, Myers said the company has not determined the starting date for legal proscription — the one-year period given in Louisiana to file civil claims. Bubbles later linked to underground movements in the vicinity of the sinkhole were first reported May 30.

Earlier on Tuesday, Jindal also promised to back proposed legislation being developed by state Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part; state Sen. Rick Ward III, D-Port Allen; and other legislators to improve state regulation of salt domes. The legislation reportedly is contemplated in reaction to the Assumption Parish sinkhole and related developments.

Jindal said he would pursue two recommendations raised by residents during the meeting: Adding a resident’s representative member to a blue-ribbon panel that would determine the long-term stability of the Bayou Corne area; and having a review of the appraisal process being used for buyouts.

Kyle Plotkin, Jindal’s communications director, would not allow members of the news media to observe the governor’s meeting with residents, saying room was being made for residents, but that reporters would have time afterward to speak with Jindal.

Plotkin added that some residents wanted the ability to speak freely and in private with the governor.

When pressed after several minutes over denial of public access to the meeting, Plotkin allowed reporters to enter a room in the rear of the building where conversations between Jindal and the audience could be heard through a rear door.

Mike Schaff, 63, a Bayou Corne resident who has continued to occupy his property despite the evacuation order, was nearby when Jindal’s helicopter landed. Schaff shook Jindal’s hand as the governor greeted officials and residents before the meeting.

Schaff said he took off from work to attend the meeting after he found out about it Tuesday morning. Schaff said he felt Jindal’s trip to Bayou Corne and recent attention to the emergency “definitely” have added momentum to resolving the situation.

“Texas Brine would have just let this drag until August, when we would have all had to hire attorneys,” Schaff said.

Like Schaff, Kerry Simoneaux, 56, attended the private meeting with Jindal. Simoneaux said that while Jindal should have visited the area five or six months ago, the governor’s recent public actions in regard to sinkhole issues are welcome.

“Since he got involved, things have started moving, and they are moving exponentially faster. We just wish he would have been here sooner,” said Simoneaux, a Bayou Corne resident who is living in a camper trailer in a recreational vehicle park in Pierre Part.

On that point, Jindal reiterated comments Tuesday he made last week that he had been involved since the beginning of the incident but decided to take a more public role after Texas Brine missed several of its own committed deadlines for actions on buyouts and other matters.

The governor offered an update on the progress of the sinkhole response and emphasized the importance of assuring the stability of the subsurface areas beneath the sinkhole and around the western edge of the Napoleonville Dome.

Jindal said the state is moving forward with a continuous, detailed monitoring system for La. 70 South, a major thoroughfare in the parish that partly lies in the vicinity of the sinkhole.

Although Texas Brine has not given any indications as to whether the system would be completely satisfactory, the state plans to bill Texas Brine for the cost of the highway monitoring system, now estimated to cost more than $1 million to install, Jindal said.