By David J. Mitchell
River Parishes bureau
August 14, 2012
Texas Brine Co. LLC of Houston agreed to make a “significant contribution” toward helping northern Assumption Parish residents whose homes are under an evacuation order due to a swampland sinkhole emergency, state and company officials said Saturday.
The evacuation order applied to about 150 residences in the Bayou Corne area, and many families have had to relocate to temporary housing after it was determined a giant sinkhole that formed Aug. 3 may be connected to one of Texas Brine’s salt dome caverns.
The original permit for the cavern, which had been used in the production of brine until a few years ago, requires the operator to provide assistance to residents in areas deemed to be at immediate potential risk, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness said in a news release.
The permit requirement arises in the event of a sinkhole and evacuation situation, state officials said.
Sonny Cranch, spokesman for Texas Brine, said that during a Saturday morning meeting in Bayou Corne, DNR and parish officials discussed the requirements of the salt cavern’s original permit calling for assistance to residents. Company officials in Houston subsequently agreed Saturday, he said.
Cranch said he could not say how large of a contribution would be paid or in what form or fashion at this point.
“At least it’s a step in the right direction,” he said, adding one of the main objectives is to get people assistance.
Texas Brine officials told state officials that the company would also seek help from other operators in the area, state officials said in the news release.
Residents in the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou areas had been seeing mysterious natural gas bubbles in bayous and feeling earth tremors for more than two months before the sinkhole was discovered Aug. 3.
DNR officials have said it is possible the cavern, which stored brine, failed and was a cause of the sinkhole and the natural gas releases.
Louisiana Office of Conservation Commissioner Jim Welsh ordered Texas Brine on Thursday to begin drilling a relief well to determine the integrity of the cavern.
Stephen Chustz, interim DNR secreetary, said Friday the company has until end of business hours Monday to submit a drilling permit or face $5,000 daily fines.
Cranch said Texas Brine plans to submit its permit application Monday. He said the company would directionally drill from a stable and safe location on Texas Brine’s 40-acre site south of La. 70 South.
Texas Brine officials have said an optimistic time frame to finish the drilling is 40 days, after which diagnostic tests can be taken to see what is happening in the cavern.
Texas Brine’s sign of good will, however, was not soon enough to possibly forestall action in state and federal courts against the company. At least three lawsuits have been filed so far, attorneys said.
The last of those three was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in New Orleans. Texas Brine’s Cranch was actually handed a copy of the suit during a Texas Brine news conference Friday in Gonzales.
The suit, which includes a claim under the federal Clean Water Act, among several, accuses Texas Brine of structure and maintenance of a faulty brine cavern that also contained naturally occurring radioactive materials, releasing pollutants into the surrounding property.
The suit accuses the company of failing to notify the public about a failed integrity test of the cavern and well after January 2011, when Texas Brine told DNR about the problems.
The suit seeks civil penalties, damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees and expenses, medical expenses and other relief.
Two other damage suits making claims against Texas Brine over the sinkhole and company’s alleged negligence in handling the salt cavern were filed last week in Assumption Parish in the 23rd Judicial District Court, attorneys confirmed.
One of those two suits also named DNR as a defendant, attorneys said.
“Landowners are demanding complete remediation of all facets of the damage as well as a demand that the state of Louisiana to move forcefully and quickly to protect public health, clean up the site, and restore the land and water,” John Carmouche, whose firm has sued Texas Brine and DNR on behalf of landowners, said in a statement.
Cranch declined comment Saturday, saying that is being handled by the company’s legal team and that personnel in Louisiana are focused on the emergency response.
Patrick Courreges, DNR spokesman, declined to comment on pending litigation Saturday.
When asked, however, he said it is too soon to say whether Texas Brine may be the responsible party. He said that while there is an operating theory about what happened to form the sinkhole, it has not been confirmed.
Also on Saturday, Texas Brine began remediation of diesel in the sinkhole, which is 422 feet deep and about 375 feet across. Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality officials conducted air monitoring via boat Saturday in the areas of natural gas bubbling on Bayou Corne.
Prior testing last week showed no risk from naturally occurring radioactive material dumped in 1995 in the possibly failed brine cavern, DEQ officials have said.
The so-called NORM came to light in news accounts Thursday based on DNR records.
Texas Brine officials said on Friday that the NORM, which had radioactivity below current standards but matched or was higher than the standards at the time, was likely entombed at the bottom of the cavern under layers of salt. Brine production continued for several years afterward.
Also, on Friday, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals State Epidemiologist Dr. Raoult Ratard sent a letter to Assumption Parish Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche about potential exposure risks to the public.
The letter, state officials said, says that to date, “it does not appear that chemical exposure of site-related contaminants poses a public health risk to individuals in the immediate area of Bayou Corne for the time period and chemicals sampled.”
Texas Brine’s original permit for the possibly troubled cavern calls for shutting down brine mining operations near a sinkhole. DNR’s Office of Conservation is continuing to monitor for the need to trigger those provisions to protect public safety, the news release says.
Cranch said Texas Brine is continuing to produce brine from one its three wells on the company’s 40-acre site. Another is on standby while the third, the one in question, was plugged and abandoned in June 2011.
None of them has ever stored natural gas. DNR officials have suggested natural gas found in the salt formation seeped into the possibly failed cavern.