BAYOU CORNE — State and parish officials pressed Texas Brine Co. LLC on Friday to drill a relief well to determine whether a company salt cavern may have failed and spawned a large sinkhole that forced Bayou Corne residents to evacuate their homes.
Stephen Chustz, interim secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources, said Texas Brine faces a fine of $5,000 per day if it doesn’t submit an application for the permit by Monday.
“We want this done,” Chustz said. “We want it done immediately.”
“We want them here tomorrow to start that relief well,” said Col. Mike Edmonson, State Police superintendent.
During a day of news conferences in Bayou Corne and in Gonzales, officials assured residents the problems in northern Assumption Parish were their top priority while Texas Brine officials promised quick work on starting the relief well.
Interviews and news conferences Friday brought the following disclosures:
- Parish officials were hopeful the relief well could be finished in 40 days, but Texas Brine officials executives said that was an optimistic goal.
- Texas Brine officials said when they met with DNR officials four days before the sinkhole formed Aug. 3, they had assurances from their company experts that the probabilities of a cavern collapse and sinkhole formation were “exceptionally low.”
- Chustz disputed the assertion that DNR officials knew about possible problems with the salt cavern months beforehand but were focused on a problem in the well bore above the cavern.
A sinkhole formed on Texas Brine’s property next to a company salt cavern on Aug. 3. The sinkhole’s emergence followed tremors and natural gas releases from Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou. DNR officials have said it is possible the cavern failed and was a cause of the sinkhole and the natural gas releases going back more than two months.
Jim Welsh, DNR commissioner of conservation, ordered Texas Brine on Thursday to begin drilling the relief well to determine the integrity of the salt cavern.
Both state and local officials tried to reassure more than 100 residents during Friday’s news conference at Sportsman’s Landing boat launch in Bayou Corne that they were working diligently to find a solution and allow them to return home as quickly as possible.
“Although we have a lot going on in our state, I can assure you this is our No. 1 priority, our No. 1 mission in this state,” said Pat Santos, deputy director of emergency management for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Assumption Parish Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche told the crowd it could be 40 days before the relief well is finished. He said a mandatory evacuation in the area will remain in effect during that period.
“We won’t feel a level of confidence to lift that evacuation until we have more answers from that investigatory well,” Triche said.
Sheriff Mike Waguespack assured residents of Bayou Corne that police presence — from both the Sheriff’s Office and State Police — will be elevated during the next 40 days.
“I think we should stand together and stand strong and hold Texas Brine’s feet to the fire,” Waguespack said. “There are no more excuses. There will be no more delays.”
During a separate news conference earlier Friday in Gonzales, Mark Cartwright, a Texas Brine executive, said the company is shifting into a diagnostic mode after being in the emergency response mode.
“Our pledge to the community and to you folks is that by this time next week, we expect to have a drilling permit, a location selected and a drilling rig selected maybe to the extent that we’re actually mobilizing in the field,” Cartwright said at the Clarion Inn Conference Center.
Cartwright said 40 days is an optimistic time frame that assumes no problems are encountered with drilling.
But he said once the well is drilled, Texas Brine will be able to do diagnostic work to determine if the cavern “is related to this problem.”
He said he does not know if that work will give conclusive proof of what actually happened, but it will at least show whether the cavern was as the company left it when its well was plugged in June 2011. The well atop the cavern was sealed with cement to a depth of 2,500 feet.
Cartwright said the relief well could also give the company the opportunity to relieve natural gas pressure within the cavern.
Company officials decided to meet with DNR officials on July 30 — four days before the sinkhole appeared — after U.S. Geological Survey data showed the tremors in the area appeared to be centering on the western edge of Napoleonville Dome, where the cavern is located.
When asked later what DNR officials told them in that meeting, Cartwright said DNR officials were as “perplexed” as they were, but asked a lot of intelligent questions.
He said they went over the unsuccessful process of working over the cavern’s well in 2010 in an effort to expand brine production above the existing salt cavern and the later decision to plug the well bore.
“And we had assurances from our experts — in fact, there were a couple of Ph.D.’s in the room — that the probability of a cavern collapse and sinkhole was exceptionally low,” Cartwright said.
“So we had some comfort after that meeting. We didn’t think, one, we had a relationship with what was going on, and, No. 2, a risk of anything happening as it occurred on Friday (Aug. 3).”
At the Bayou Corne news conference, Chustz said DNR officials were investigating every potential scenario and he denied that DNR officials knew of a possible problem with the Texas Brine cavern months before the sinkhole collapsed.
Chustz, who took over as interim secretary on Wednesday following the resignation of Scott Angelle, said the salt cavern passed its last mechanical integrity test — a kind of pressure test called an MIT — in October 2010.
He said a Jan. 21, 2011, letter to DNR from Cartwright, which discusses a failed MIT, referred to “a breach in the top portion of the well, not in the actual cavern itself.”
The Cartwright letter makes mention of a possible “hydraulic communication” between the cavern and the formation outside of the salt dome.
“At this time, a breach out of the salt dome appears possible. If the cavern is in hydraulic communication with the formation outside of the salt dome, such communication could have occurred during mining or during brine injection before the MIT,” Cartwright wrote.
His letter adds there had been no obvious signs of the loss of integrity during the productive life of the “cavern,” but those possibilities were under review.
Sonny Cranch, spokesman for Texas Brine, said in a later interview Friday that the company did one mechanical integrity test of the entire salt cavern and its well bore during the work on the well.
He said that operation was the failed test referred to Cartwright’s letter. DNR records show it occurred between early October and mid-December.
Cranch said company officials, at the time, did not suspect a problem with the salt cavern wall, but were worried about a hydraulic communication through the boring done to the salt cavern well, 1,000 feet above the salt cavern itself.
He said company officials and people in the business use the words “well” and “cavern” interchangeably.
The well-plugging operation in June 2011 was aimed at sealing off any connection between the reworked well topping the cavern and the surrounding sediment.