BAYOU CORNE — Assumption Parish leaders reacted angrily Thursday to revelations that Louisiana Department of Natural Resources and Texas Brine Co. LLC officials had known since January 2011 about possible problems at a salt cavern now suspected as a cause of a large sinkhole in the vicinity of the Napoleonville Dome.
Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part; Sheriff Mike Waguespack; Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche; and John Boudreaux, director of the parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said they were “upset” and “disturbed” to learn about those problems not directly from DNR, but in a news account Thursday.
“I’m very disappointed in DNR not being up-front,” Waguespack said.
A joint command has been addressing the sinkhole and earlier natural gas releases and tremors that have plagued Bayou Corne residents for more than two months. In that command, parish officials have met regularly with state officials, including those from DNR, to discuss what may be happening.
The parish officials said they did not know until Thursday that the Texas Brine salt cavern had failed an integrity test in late 2010, a development that may have pointed to the cavern breaching the outer wall of the massive Napoleonville Dome.
With such a breach, the brine contents of the cavern could have come in contact with surrounding sediment and may have fed the sinkhole.
Waguespack said timely disclosure of the test could have pointed officials more quickly to the suspected source.
“If we had data indicating there was a failed integrity test, then certainly that would make us believe there is a possibility something would be leaking,” the sheriff said.
Waguespack and Boudreaux said then-DNR Secretary Scott Angelle told them in a meeting Saturday, a day after the sinkhole appeared, that the salt cavern may well have had “problems” in 2010, but Angelle did not disclose the failed integrity test.
The test measures whether caverns, which are hollowed out of solid salt deposits forming the 1-by-3-mile dome, can hold pressure or may have some kind of leak or weakness.
Angelle resigned Wednesday without giving a reason. A DNR spokeswoman said Thursday there is no connection between his departure and the Bayou Corne emergency.
The 422-foot deep sinkhole emerged on Aug. 3, swallowing forested swamps adjacent to the Texas Brine cavern’s location and prompting a mandatory evacuation order for Bayou Corne community residents that remained in place Thursday.
Parish officials reported Thursday that a Louisiana National Guard helicopter on a nighttime overflight Wednesday found the surface of the 372-foot-diameter sinkhole grew 10 to 20 feet from north to south.
Also Thursday, DNR Commissioner of Conservation James “Jim” H. Welsh ordered Texas Brine to drill a well “expeditiously” to investigate the salt cavern and further evaluate potential causes of the subsidence near its well site.
Welsh’s order instructs Texas Brine to obtain samples of any cavern content and provide daily reports on the progress, a DNR news release says.
“Texas Brine has been ordered to implement these steps as soon as possible and move full steam ahead,” Welsh said in the statement.
Welsh also promised continual communication with the public on Texas Brine’s actions.
Texas Brine has called a news conference for 1 p.m. Friday at the Clarion Hotel, 1500 W. La. 30, Gonzales, regarding the sinkhole, a company news release says. A representative of DNR is expected to attend.
Also, Waguespack and other parish officials said they further learned through news accounts Thursday that DNR’s Office of Conservation had authorized Texas Brine in 1995 to dispose of naturally occurring radioactive material in the now-possibly failed cavern.
This disclosure particularly irritated Waguespack and Boudreaux. Without knowledge of the possible risk, Waguespack said, he had assigned deputies to work around the sinkhole. Boudreaux said he had been at the sinkhole site, too, not knowing about the possible presence of the radioactive material.
In light of that, Assumption Parish officials asked the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to test for any naturally occurring radioactive material on Thursday morning, parish officials said.
Sampling at the surface of the sinkhole and tests of water samples taken Wednesday indicated “no detectable levels for naturally occurring radioactive material,” DEQ officials said in a news release.
“Based on the first round of data, we are confident that the potential exposure of citizens to NORM is not a problem in this matter,” DEQ Secretary Peggy Hatch said in the news release.
Hatch said sampling will continue.
The material, called NORM, is often a by-product of oil and gas exploration and production. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website, radioactivity can vary widely, from background amounts to much higher levels.
The news accounts Thursday disclosed both the NORM materials disposal in 1995 and a Jan. 21, 2011, letter that Mark J. Cartwright, now a Texas Brine president, sent to DNR.
The letter told DNR about the failed integrity test and company officials’ subsequent suspicion that the cavern may have breached the Napoleonville Dome’s outer wall, possibly explaining a loss of pressure in the cavern during the test.
“At this time, a breach out of the salt dome appears possible,” Cartwright wrote to Joseph S. “Joe” Ball Jr., director of DNR’s Injection and Mining Division.
The cavern well was plugged in June 2011 but not monitored afterward.
On Wednesday and Thursday, DNR officials defended their handling of their inquiry into the problems occurring around Bayou Corne, saying they followed the facts and tried to disclose all the information.
“I really don’t know how more to explain it. These were issues that did come up in the community meeting (Tuesday). Texas Brine did speak to it,” said Phyllis Darensbourg, DNR spokeswoman.
DNR and Texas Brine officials did say Tuesday in Pierre Part that the cavern may be closer to the outer wall of the dome than thought, that it could have failed and created the sinkhole. The January 2011 letter was not mentioned, however.
Triche said DNR should have had staff checking the files and records of all wells and caverns around the Bayou Corne area earlier than Tuesday so the joint command could have known about the possible problems at the Texas Brine well, known as Oxy Geismar Well No. 3, far sooner.