PIERRE PART — Texas Brine Co. LLC came under fire Thursday for a second time in a week over its failure so far to provide housing assistance to evacuees all the way back to Aug. 3, the day they were ordered out of their homes when a sinkhole surfaced near a salt dome in Assumption Parish.
At issue is payment to the evacuees for the first two weeks following the evacuation order. Louisiana Department of Natural Resources officials said Thursday they have not received formal notification from the Houston-based Texas Brine despite an enforcement order last week.
The $875 checks cut Thursday at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church Parish Hall and, on Aug. 17, were each for the next week’s expenses only.
At St. Joseph the Worker’s parish hall in Pierre Part, where the checks were distributed Thursday, residents offered a mix of feelings, appreciative for the help and concerned about the long term.
In contrast to crowds on Aug. 17 at a sheriff’s substation just down La. 70 from the church hall, residents were getting in and out in five to 10 minutes by 11:30 a.m. Thursday.
Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said residents started lining up at 8:15 a.m. for the 9 a.m. start. He said waits earlier Thursday lasted 45 minutes to an hour.
While some residents said they were told retroactive payments were still being worked on, others, such as Christina Cavalier, 29, of Bayou Corne, they had not heard of them Thursday.
Cavalier said the checks she received would help. The evacuation, which has sent their family from Bayou Corne to Belle River, meant she lost the baby sitter, her neighbor, who minds her 3-year-old daughter. The child is now in day care.
Cavalier, who works part-time, said she received two checks Thursday — one from the prior week and the one issued Thursday — because she and her family members were out of town last week.
“I’m appreciative of them actually helping,” she said of Texas Brine officials.
But others said the checks were bittersweet recompense to them because of their fears about what the sinkhole may mean to the long-term prospects of Bayou Corne.
John Hill, 58, a Denham Springs resident who has a summer home in Bayou Corne where he spend weeks at a time, said the checks will help, but will not bring back his “little piece of heaven.”
“It’s not going to be the same. It’s heartbreaking,” Hill said.
A few, with checks in hand, said they were looking for a longer-term term solution than weekly payments.
“Buy us out or shut the wells down,” said Duane Bier, 71, of Bayou Corne.
Cranch said later Thursday the company is not at a juncture, at this point, to discuss buyouts. It is trying to determine what happened and what caused the sinkhole, he said.
But Louisiana Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh said in a statement Thursday that Texas Brine may be fined up to $5,000 per day if it does not indicate its intention to comply with his order last week that the company provide assistance retroactively to Aug. 3.
“This company made certain guarantees to the state and its people when it was allowed to operate in Louisiana,” Welsh said in the statement, “and we intend to ensure Texas Brine meets those commitments in assisting impacted residents as was originally agreed to when its operations were permitted.”
Cranch said the company has been in preliminary discussions with DNR officials about technical issues surrounding the payments and has not made the formal notification yet.
“We have been and are continuing discussions in a good-faith effort to clarify and resolve issues regarding the compliance order,” Cranch said.
He did not say what those issues are, but added: “We have said before and we will say again, ‘We have every intention of complying with the order.’”
The sinkhole was found Aug. 3 about 200 feet laterally from the Texas Brine salt dome cavern suspected as its cause. The hole swallowed up swamp on the surface between the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou areas south of La. 70 South.
DNR scientists think the plugged and abandoned cavern may have been created by brine mining activities conducted by the company too close to the outer edge of the Napoleonville Dome. The 20-million-barrel cavern is believed to have failed and leaked its brine contents, causing the sinkhole.
DNR has ordered Texas Brine to drill an observational well to see what happened inside the cavern.
The 1-by3-mile dome is a large salt deposit pushed up from an ancient seabed under the earth.
The cavern was used in solution mining for nearly three decades to produce brine for industry. In the process, the cavern was hollowed out of the salt dome with water into the shape of a narrow, upside-down vase 3,400 feet underground.
On Aug. 11, officials with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness said that the company’s original permit application for the salt cavern requires housing assistance to area residents who have to leave their homes in the event of a sinkhole and evacuation orders.
Also on Aug. 11, after being presented with the permit language, Texas Brine agreed to make a “significant contribution” to an evacuee fund.
Then on Aug. 17, Welsh issued the enforcement order requiring that the payments be retroactive to Aug. 3 after the company initially provided payments only for future housing costs.
Company officials responded on Aug. 17 that they would comply with that order but DNR officials said on Thursday they had not received formal notification from the company.
DNR officials noted in their statement that the payments on Thursday, six days after the Aug. 17 enforcement order, did not include assistance retroactive to the evacuation date, though Cranch had told news outlets last week the company would comply.
In response to Cranch’s comments on Thursday, Patrick Courreges, DNR spokesman, said DNR has made clear that the permit requires that “assistance be provided to evacuees from the start of the evacuation order.”
“The reality is that the company needs to work with the individuals who have been impacted, but the company has yet to offer a plan to the public,” Courreges said.