BAYOU CORNE — John Boudreaux smelled petroleum in the air when he arrived at work at 5:30 a.m. on Aug. 3 of last year.
More than two months into an emergency response for unexplained bayou bubbles and tremors, Boudreaux was working in Bayou Corne at a command post set up to investigate the mysterious goings-on that had baffled residents, Assumption Parish officials and state regulators.
Emergency dispatchers had already received complaints about the hydrocarbon smell that Friday morning from waking residents.
Boudreaux, director of the Assumption Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, drove to an oil tank battery station north of La. 70 South, thinking it might be the source. But the old tanks had been removed.
As he drove away, his cel phone rang.
It was Kenneth Blanchard, Louisiana Area manager for Texas Brine Co., whose Grand Bayou facility is near the Bayou Corne community.
“ ‘Hey, where you at?’ ” Blanchard asked.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m in Bayou Corne looking for an oil spill,’ ” Boudreaux said.
“He says, ‘Well, you might want to come over here.’ ”
In a wooded patch on Texas Brine’s leased site south off La. 70 was a 200-foot-by-200-foot sinkhole.
Initially called a “slurry hole,” the sinkhole had emerged sometime overnight after months of stirrings deep underground, pulling mature cypress trees straight down under a surface of floating mats of grass, mud and crude oil.
That evening, Assumption Parish Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche ordered an evacuation for 350 people in the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou communities.
Since that day, one year ago Saturday, the 24-acre sinkhole has grown by a factor of more than 20 and taken on a volcano-like quality. The sinkhole has dormant periods and active periods, when tremors increase and methane and an emulsified oily gunk are released from deep natural deposits.
Scientists now suspect the sinkhole arose from a failure of a Texas Brine Co. salt dome cavern after it was mined too closely to the outer face of the underground salt deposit.
Under public and political pressure, Texas Brine began buyout talks in late May, and 63 of 92 eligible property owners accepted them by the July 31 deadline, though lawsuits filed by residents and businesses are also piling up in court.
The long-standing disaster has prompted divided responses from residents and, as a result, periodic tensions in those communities as some are angry with Texas Brine and state regulators, others want to fight and get more answers, and yet others are ready to leave and move on.
“A year has gone by. They have taken a year of our lives. We have been on pause,” said Candy Blanchard, 48, an evacuated Bayou Corne resident who helps moderate a weekly support group for sinkhole evacuees.
“That’s a long time to have our lives on pause and not able to be gone.”
As Louisiana Office of Conservation and Texas Brine Co. contractors have trained their sensors on the sinkhole, scientists have refined their theories about what is happening. But they still do not have the full picture.
Texas Brine and Conservation experts suggest, based on new seismic data, that the large 1-mile-by-3-mile salt dome itself is stable.
But the experts differ on how much flammable methane is left to be removed and how long that will take, and they cannot agree on the size of the zone of fractured rock underneath the sinkhole that is a key factor in assessing long-term stability and extent of the sinkhole.
Gary Hecox, senior hydrogeologist with CB&I, a contractor working on the sinkhole for the Office of Conservation, told residents last month they are in “for a long haul.”
The rate of gas removal has dropped significantly since late February. Under the current low rates, parish officials have estimated it could take three to five years to remove the remaining gas under the community and even longer if suspected additional gas sources feed the subsurface.
Texas Brine officials claim there are signs the gas is diminishing. Texas Brine officials say they are also working on methods, including more advanced testing and better vent well designs, to vastly improve the rate of gas removal.
“This was an unfortunate, totally unexpected incident, and we truly regret what the Bayou Corne community has had to endure over the past year,” company officials said in a statement.
“We know there is frustration in the community, and we are doing everything we can to address their concerns.”
The possibility of the evacuation continuing a year later has surprised Triche. He said he would have expected some kind continuing response a year after the sinkhole but not the continued threat to residents.
“I would have never for the life of me thought we’d been a year out still in this same predicament that were in: a sinkhole that’s continuously evolving, natural gas continuing to vent, and bubbles in and around communities,” Triche said.
Bayou Corne residents Ronnie and Betty Thibodaux have been living in a compact recreational vehicle since the evening Triche called the evacuation.
They don’t know how much more they can take.
“They called the meeting at 6:30 p.m. We were gone for 7:30 p.m.,” Betty Thibodaux said.
Ronnie Thibodaux, 67, suffers from an ailment related to Parkinson’s, leaving him unsteady and in need of his wife’s constant help.
During a recent visit to their RV at the Cypress Lake RV Resort in Berwick in St. Mary Parish, Betty Thibodaux, 63, showed how she positions her husband’s legs past a narrow spot in the RV and rolls him on the bed so he can lie down each night.
They are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Texas Brine, and their suit is scheduled for trial in April 2014.
“They said 10 months before you go to court,” she said. “We won’t be able to stay in the camper for 10 months. He barely can pick his feet up to walk. So, I mean, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
She said they have not pursued a buyout from Texas Brine because she does not believe a fair market appraisal would leave them with enough money to replace what they had in Bayou Corne.
“I would never get enough to pay what I owe and get something else, and I didn’t want to get a 30-year loan because we’re going to be in our 90s by the time (the loan is paid off),” Thibodaux said.
In Bayou Corne, the couple had lived next to her niece and her brothers, Wallace and Haywood Cavalier, on Sauce Piquante Lane. The extended family spent months together evacuated in a Pierre Part trailer park, even having a Thanksgiving in the park’s cinder block laundromat.
But her brothers’ families now are living in Thibodaux and Pierre Part, leaving Betty and Ronnie Thibodaux in Berwick, looking for a rental house somewhere near Thibodaux to be close to his doctors.
Labeled “Wind chimes, nick nak” and “Queen size sheets,” the cardboard boxes stacked in a pyramid in Gerald and Janet Merritt’s living room signal the way ahead for the retired couple.
The Merritts, who have been living in Bayou Corne since 1993 and planned on it being their final home, have taken a buyout from Texas Brine and are moving back to Baton Rouge.
The packing of 20 years of accumulation was slow and ominous for the feelings it was stirring.
“We don’t have our pots packed,” joked Janet Merritt, 69. “We have got so much stuff to pack, it’s pitiful.”
A combination of factors led them to opt for a buyout.
Janet Merritt has struggled with her health and has regular doctor’s visits in Baton Rouge. Also, one of their three adult sons in Baton Rouge was recently diagnosed with cancer.
“But the reason why we’re having to relocate is because of that salt dome over there,” Gerald Merritt said, “and I just don’t believe … they can physically, possibly stabilize that area over there because it’s sinking down.”
An avid fisherman, Merritt was drawn to the area’s bayous, but his boat has been laid up since last August because he fears riding near bubble sites venting methane.
Merritt, 70, a retired union welder who once survived being buried alive during a cave-in working under a pipeline, said he initially did not plan to leave Bayou Corne. But he said the realization has set in that authorities are not likely to stabilize the sinkhole and the couple does not want to wait on litigation.
“I’m not going to wait until I can’t get out of here,” Gerald Merritt said. “It’s bad enough now.”
As the legal and buyout process grinds forward, Bayou Corne appears headed inexorably toward the fate of a growing number of communities and neighborhoods that have made way for Louisiana industries.
Whether it’s Reveilletown for Georgia Gulf in Iberville Parish, Diamond for the Norco refinery in St. Charles Parish, or parts of Garyville and all of Lions for Marathon in St. John Parish, said Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the buyout process is always bittersweet.
“You just have respect that there is no price that really repays for the loss of your community, your homes and dreams, but at same time, some people feel this is the best option,” Orr said.
In Grand Bayou, a well failure in a gas storage cavern in late 2003 led to a two-month evacuation and buyouts of virtually all residents in the small farming community next to Bayou Corne.
Gina Vedros, 50, grew up in Grand Bayou and has been fighting in court over a buyout from the 2003 incident. Vedros was still living in Grand Bayou for the Texas Brine failure last year.
Though she feels Texas Brine did not give her a fair deal, she accepted the offer because she is tired of fighting. Despite the area’s beauty, she said, she believes it needs to become an industrial zone.
“I don’t think that’s fair, but it seems like we can’t share that area,” Vedros said. “If they can’t exist with us, we don’t have the money and the power to really still live there. They can control us.”
Bob Deaton, 66, is quick point out that everyone has to make their own decision about acceptable risk, but like many of his neighbors in the upscale Sportsman’s Drive neighborhood south of La. 70 South, Deaton has chosen to remain at his waterfront home in Bayou Corne.
Deaton enjoys the fishing in the community’s namesake bayou. The endless combinations of bank shape, vegetation, water level, temperature and other factors in the swamps make guessing where the fish are a daily challenge.
Deaton, a retired electrical engineer who worked at the Exxon Mobil refinery in Baton Rouge and other industrial jobs, has brought the same intellectual focus to the sinkhole behind his house.
Deaton reads reports buried on government websites tracking the sinkhole and he recently made a technical suggestion to improve gas removal, which Texas Brine officials later said they had been reviewing.
Though a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Texas Brine, he is suing over the loss of value for his property, not to be bought-out. Deaton has a second home in Baton Rouge but contends that even if he had only a home in Bayou Corne, he would be even more willing to stay.
Deaton has one of the 55 homes with in-home monitors installed to check for gas levels. He pointed out there have been no cases of toxic or flammable gas in homes or on the streets or at a dangerous levels in the bayous.
“So given that and given my experience, you know, working my entire life in refineries and chemical plants, I just don’t think there is a need to leave,” he said.
“If it becomes dangerous, I think the meters I have will give me sufficient alarm to evacuate. And I have a lot at stake here, so I don’t want to go.”