Texas Brine balks at order

Lawsuit filed to block La. Conservation Office directives

Texas Brine Co. LLC has asked state District Court in Baton Rouge to permanently block the Louisiana Office of Conservation’s latest directives compelling new investigations into the underground effects of an evolving, 8.5-acre sinkhole in northern Assumption Parish.

The Houston company challenged in court the underlying emergency and factual basis for the Dec. 7 directives and alleged an administrative hearing should have first been held by Louisiana Conservation Commissioner James Welsh.

Filed Dec. 28 in 19th Judicial District Court in East Baton Rouge Parish, the six-page suit asserts the state’s move ignores “more reasonable, scientifically sound and safer methods for accomplishing the goals” identified in Welsh’s order.

The suit disputes the need for the order’s various directives, including the drilling of two 6,000-foot-deep seismic exploratory wells near the sinkhole, which Texas Brine argues could increase the risk of danger to the public and environment.

Under the disputed order, drilling on the first of those wells — aimed at identifying voids in a collapse zone under the sinkhole and the spaces’ ability to hold released methane gas — was set to start Jan. 15.

Texas Brine officials issued a statement Thursday saying the complexity of the directives, their “unrealistic” timelines and their questionable justification forced company officials “to seek relief from the court until a more thorough and comprehensive review of the work ordered can be done.”

The suit says the Office of Conservation issued the directives at 5:45 p.m. Dec. 7 without notice to the company and despite ongoing discussions about what to do next, thus violating constitutional and state statutory protections against deprivation of Texas Brine’s “vested rights” without a hearing first.

Welsh can take action without a hearing during an emergency, but the suit disputes whether the emergence of the sinkhole and its aftermath, a situation now dating more than five months, meets the statutory definition of an emergency.

Without a declared emergency, the suit alleges, Welsh may properly issue the directives only after the administrative hearing being sought.

The suit names Welsh, his office, the state Department of Natural Resources and the state as defendants and asks for a court hearing on a preliminary injunction to block Welsh’s order and separately rule on the need for Welsh to conduct an administrative hearing.

The suit has been assigned to state District Judge Wilson Fields, but no date for a court hearing on the injunction had been set by Thursday.

Office of Conservation officials said Thursday night in a written response to Texas Brine’s lawsuit that the company received notice of the Dec. 7 order “in full compliance with the law and constitutional mandates.”

The officials also stood by their call for the deep wells and defended their determination that the sinkhole remains an emergency, noting parish officials and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration have both reached the same conclusion.

The statement cites the unexpected formation and continued growth of the sinkhole, subsidence around the sinkhole, natural gas bubbling in waterways, trapped underground methane and uncertainty about the source of the methane as well as the status of the sinkhole collapse zone.

“The Office of Conservation cannot simply assume the safety of the public and the environment, but must direct action to most accurately assess the situation and provide for a response that assures that safety,” officials said in the statement.

The sinkhole prompted an evacuation of 150 homes in the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou areas when it was discovered Aug. 3. Scientists have since pointed to the failure of a Texas Brine salt cavern as the suspected cause of the sinkhole, methane gas and other impacts.

The cavern was carved from inside but near the western edge of the Napoleonville Dome, a massive, subterranean salt deposit in the area.

The lawsuit centers on only Welsh’s fifth amendment to his original emergency order.

In Texas Brine’s statement, company officials said the suit “will have absolutely no impact on current operations” or evacuee assistance payments and that Texas Brine management remains committed to responding to the incident.

Advocate staff writer Joe Gyan contributed to this story.