Louisiana suing Texas Brine over Assumption sinkhole

Photo provided by Assumption Parish Emergency Preparedness, JOHN BOUDREAUX -- The cause of the sinkhole, as seen from above in June, is still undetermined.
Photo provided by Assumption Parish Emergency Preparedness, JOHN BOUDREAUX -- The cause of the sinkhole, as seen from above in June, is still undetermined.

Environment damage among complaints

The state of Louisiana and Assumption Parish’s Police Jury and Sheriff’s Office raced against a looming legal deadline Friday to file a lawsuit against Texas Brine Co. and a Dallas subsidiary of oil giant Occidental Petroleum over the Bayou Corne-area sinkhole that emerged a year ago Saturday.

State and parish officials are seeking to recoup the costs of their emergency response efforts, while the state also is suing over the environmental damage allegedly caused by the Texas Brine cavern failure that led to the sinkhole.

Louisiana government’s suit, which was filed on behalf of all state agencies involved in the response, makes a claim, in part, under state environmental quality laws. Those laws allow assessment of up to $32,500 in civil penalties for each day of a violation and up to $1 million per day for intentional and willful violations.

Separately, Texas Brine filed suit on Friday against the Occidental subsidiary, Occidental Chemical Corp., and three other companies over the actions that Texas Brine claims the companies took leading up to the cavern failure. The three others are Vulcan Materials Co., Adams Resources Exploration Co. and Browning Oil Co. Inc.

All four suits were filed in the 23rd Judicial District Court in Napoleonville in Assumption Parish. The 23rd District also encompasses Ascension and St. James parishes.

About 350 people have been under mandatory evacuation orders for a year on Saturday as a result of the sinkhole, now 24 acres in size, which continues to grow in cypress swamp between the partially evacuated Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou communities. Texas Brine has been buying out some of those residents.

Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement Friday that the state remains committed to holding Texas Brine accountable for the damage it has caused.

“We have already pushed for buyouts for affected residents and are undertaking a thorough review of all of Texas Brine’s permits in our state,” Jindal said.

“This suit is just the next step in making sure Texas Brine does the right thing and properly addresses the mess it’s caused.”

Sonny Cranch, a spokesman for Texas Brine, said the company will review the lawsuits “and respond appropriately.” Occidental did not return a message seeking comment Friday.

Permitted in mid-1982, the Oxy Geismar 3 cavern in the Napoleonville Dome, a massive underground salt deposit, was closed in June 2011 after years of mining and a failed attempt by Texas Brine to expand it, state records show. Occidental is the landowner of the 40-acre surface site, as well as the subsurface, and received brine from the mine for industrial uses.

The state suit alleges that Texas Brine and Occidental mined the salt dome cavern “to the point that the cavern became structurally unstable, thereby causing the collapse of the cavern and damage to Louisiana’s waters, natural resources, and the State’s Coastal Zone.”

That claim tracks what state experts and consulting scientists have asserted since last year.

State experts also have argued that the cavern collapse triggered the release of crude oil and natural gas from deep sources outside the salt dome, allowing them to migrate into shallow areas underneath the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou communities, presenting a risk of explosive gas accumulations in homes and garages.

The suit cites sinkhole-related environmental damage that includes tremors, continuing growth of the sinkhole, the presence of gas and oil in the sinkhole, accumulation of gas in the area’s aquifer, the presence of benzene in groundwater near the sinkhole and other contaminants in the sinkhole, including saline water, that could spread into surrounding freshwater swampland.

Under state Office of Conservation orders, Texas Brine is building a levee around the sinkhole to contain the contaminants but has had to bulldoze cypress swamp to do it.

The state suit also alleges that after the sinkhole emerged, the defendants “failed to immediately, consistently, and fully assume responsibility for the sinkhole response, as required by law.”

The Office of Conservation has issued nine orders or amended orders to Texas Brine in connection with the sinkhole and fined it $260,000 for alleged noncompliance last year.

The state suit, however, does not allege that Texas Brine and Occidental should have known the cavern would fail by being mined too closely to the salt dome face but claims the company is liable for failure of a cavern in their control.

Office of Conservation officials have noted for months that the type of cavern failure and sinkhole that formed are “unprecedented” and could not be foreseen.

The other private suits have alleged that Texas Brine and Occidental, and in some cases Conservation, had warning signs and should have foreseen the failure.

Texas Brine officials and Assumption Parish Sheriff’s Office and Police Jury officials said Friday they were filing the suits to preserve their potential legal claims.

The initial 200-by-200-foot sinkhole was found on Occidental property the morning of Aug. 3, 2012. Many attorneys, including Texas Brine’s, have said the clock on the one-year period to file a civil suit likely starts on that date.

Sheriff Mike Waguespack said Friday his attorneys advised him to file the suit before Aug. 3 as precaution. Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche said jurors employed a similar strategy.

Both officials said their agencies already have been reimbursed several hundred thousand dollars and about 80 to 85 percent of their costs.

“We’re open for negotiations, but we want to preserve our rights. We feel like we are entitled to 100 percent reimbursement,” Waguespack said.

Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the Office of Conservation has spent $11 million so far on the sinkhole response and does not believe any agencies involved have been reimbursed by Texas Brine.

The Office of Conservation, which regulates salt dome operators, is the lead agency on the response.

Texas Brine officials said last week the company has adequate insurance to meet its obligations.

Bruce Martin, Texas Brine vice president of operations, told a joint legislative committee in February that the company has in the range of $10 million to $15 million in pollution liability insurance and $200 million in general liability insurance.