“Texas Brine needs to honor the commitment it made to our community when it said it would make a ‘significant contribution’ to assisting the people who must evacuate because they are affected by the sinkhole near the company’s storage cavern.” mARTIN ‘mARTY’ tRICHE, Assumption Parish Police Jury president
PIERRE PART — Texas Brine Co. LLC of Houston began issuing $875 housing assistance checks Friday to cover the coming week of expenses for residents affected by an Aug. 3 mandatory evacuation directive in northern Assumption Parish.
Parish officials ordered the evacuation the same day a sinkhole was discovered on Texas Brine property near a company salt cavern between the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou areas.
The company also agreed Friday to pay for residents’ past expenses going back to the date the evacuation began.
That development came after Texas Brine was criticized by Assumption Parish officials who said not paying for those past expenses is a “slap in the face.”
State Department of Natural Resources officials, meanwhile, advised that the company’s cavern permit application requires such retroactive payments.
State Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh on Friday ordered Texas Brine to offer financial assistance to residents covering the entire evacuation period.
DNR scientists believe the 20-million-barrel cavern failed, releasing brine to outer sediments and causing the sinkhole.
“We will comply with the order,” Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said in an interview Friday.
As far as the first round of payments went, Cranch said, Worley Catastrophe Response, the contractor administering the Bayou Corne Incident Evacuee Fund, had by 7:30 p.m. Friday finished issuing checks to 123 residents at the Sheriff’s Office substation in Pierre Part.
Texas Brine officials have said the checks were issued to a representative of each household affected by the evacuation order.
In a separate development, Texas Brine and parish officials said crews had nearly completed assembly Friday of a mobile drilling rig trucked to a site near the sinkhole.
The initial steps to start 24-hour-per-day drilling were expected to begin between 7 p.m. and midnight Friday. Drillers were to start driving the well casing, a process that could be noisy and cause some vibration, parish officials said.
DNR ordered Texas Brine to drill an observational well to see what is happening in regard to the plugged and abandoned salt cavern in the Napoleonville Salt Dome suspected as the cause of the sinkhole and natural gas releases in the area.
The rig rises about 14 stories above a dirt pad amid cypress swamps surrounding Texas Brine’s location south of La. 70 South. The rig is about 900 feet from the edge of the sinkhole, Cranch said.
The sinkhole also grew Friday by about 20 feet from its eastern edge, inching toward Texas Brine, parish officials said.
By midmorning Friday, people had crowded inside the sheriff’s small substation on La. 70 where housing assistance checks were being distributed.
Residents signed a legal note pad and waited for their names to be called.
Once called, they went to an area behind a partition and were asked to provide verification of their residence in the evacuation area.
With the verification, residents left that area and waited to be called into a small room where the checks were cut in private.
While some residents asked about past expenses, responses to receiving the checks were mixed, but most recipients were thankful.
Residents interviewed said they were given handwritten checks and were not asked to sign a legal release.
The sinkhole has prompted civil litigation against the company and DNR.
Viki and Richard Arnold, who live off Jambalaya Street in Bayou Corne, received their check before noon Friday.
Standing outside the substation after being handed her check, Viki Arnold, 27, said it is nice that Texas Brine is willing to step out and offer assistance, but she said she is worried about what the future holds for her home because more and more dirt sloughs off and disappears into the expanding sinkhole. The Arnolds said they are staying near relatives in Belle Rose, but have two homes to maintain.
Viki Arnold said later Friday evening that money for past expenses would help her family, but cannot compensate for the disruption in their lives.
“Like I said before, it’s a help, but there is not a dollar amount for the headache of what it is,” she said.
The sinkhole emerged on Texas Brine property about 200 feet from the suspected salt cavern, which is inside the Napoleonville Dome.
The 1-by 3-mile solid salt deposit was pushed up from an ancient sea bed under the earth.
The underground cavern was used for solution mining to produce brine for industry and, in the process, was hollowed out of the salt dome with water into the shape of a narrow, upside-down vase.
DNR’s hypothesis that the cavern is the cause of the sinkhole has not been confirmed.
Without a confirmed cause, DNR officials have said, Texas Brine has not been determined to be the legally responsible party.
However, Texas Brine’s original 1982 permit application for the cavern calls for the company to provide assistance to residents in areas deemed to be “at immediate potential risk” if a sinkhole develops and an evacuation is ordered, DNR and parish officials have noted.
The application calls for Texas Brine to “take steps that include assisting affected residents” regardless of the sinkhole’s cause, DNR officials said.
In the DNR statement issued Friday, Welsh was paraphrased as saying that offering payments only for residents’ future expenses did not meet the terms of the permit.
Also, in the DNR statement, Assumption Parish officials accused the company of shortchanging residents and not understanding the problems they have had.
“Texas Brine needs to honor the commitment it made to our community when it said it would make a ‘significant contribution’ to assisting the people who must evacuate because they are affected by the sinkhole near the company’s storage cavern,” parish Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche said.
“To not pay the affected residents retroactively would be a slap in the face,” he added.
Cranch had said on Thursday that weekly payments would apply only to future expenses — each check would be considered payment for the coming week’s expenses — but by late Friday morning, he said past expenses were still being determined.
Cranch said about 5 p.m. Friday, after DNR’s media statement had been issued, that residents would be getting payment for past expenses, probably with their next week’s checks.