BAYOU CORNE — A dump truck poured yards of earth on top of a dirt pad being built up amid flooded swamplands in northern Assumption Parish.
A bulldozer smoothed out the pile, pushing it to the watery edge of the pad just west of an 8.5-acre sinkhole near the Bayou Corne community.
An excavator scooped up water from the flooded swamp and spread it over the newly leveled dirt. The bulldozer then gave the wet-down pad a final smoothing pass.
Dump, spread, compact. The process continued in that order Wednesday while workers and earthmovers set out to form the pad. As the day wore on, heavy dump trucks waited near La. 70 South for their turns to deposit more fill to build the pad.
A few hundred yards away from this noisy, diesel-fueled ballet, the fresh earth ended abruptly and a flooded road stretched into an inundated swamp, the long path ahead for Texas Brine Co. LLC’s contractors and Bayou Corne.
Dubbed colloquially “the Rig Road,” the unnamed oilfield track is seen as the means of providing access for as many as seven more vent well sites in the swamps. The wells would be placed in an H-like formation partially tracking the road and a gas pipeline right of way perpendicular to the road, officials said. The area is west of the sinkhole.
After weeks of delays over landowner access issues and public criticism for the slow pace of vent well installation, the seven wells — mandated in an order that state Conservation Commissioner James Welsh issued — are part of a push by Texas Brine to deploy 12 new vent wells in the area, company and parish officials said.
Texas Brine officials announced Jan. 12 that some land agreements were in hand and preparatory work would begin at well sites in the swamp Jan. 18. Once finished, the number of potentially working vent wells will total 16, parish and company officials said.
“We just had this issue of not being able to access a lot of these sites, and now that we’re trying to complete that (access process), it has opened a floodgate of activity,” Sonny Cranch, spokesman for Texas Brine, said Thursday.
Parish officials said the Rig Road and an accompanying dirt pad also were being raised to handle installation of a new 1,000-foot-deep seismic well and a separate well to test water in an underground aquifer.
Rig Road, along with the new pad, will serve as the hub needed to support sinkhole response and construction of a containment berm to isolate the briney slurry hole from the surrounding freshwater swamps.
Cranch added Thursday that company officials did not have a timeline for when the site preparation would be finished. He said 9,000 cubic yards of earth had been moved into the swamp through Wednesday.
Part of the earthen containment berm will do double duty as a stretch of the elevated Rig Road. Cranch said that a portion of the road must be engineered to serve both as a road and as a berm segment.
While Texas Brine is planning to drill 16 vent wells, there is no guarantee, as in the oil business itself, that all new planned wells will wind up flaring off gas. In the past months, some vent wells have not hit gas while others have filled with sand or hit hydrogen sulfide and been abandoned.
The Rig Road actually may be situated on prime territory for striking underground gas, however. A string of 11 new gas bubble sites obscured in the woods just west of the road was recently found, and bubbling sites could be seen in several locations just off the edge of the pad where contractors worked on Wednesday.
All of the vent wells are expected to reach about 160 feet deep and tap into the Mississippi River Alluvial Aquifer, where gas is trapped as a suspected consequence of the failed Texas Brine salt cavern collapse in the Napoleonville Dome, parish officials said.
The failure of the cavern’s side wall deep underground led to a subsurface scrambling that not only released crude oil and gas but also caused the sinkhole to form, scientist have said.
The sinkhole’s discovery Aug. 3 prompted an evacuation of 150 residences in the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou communities, while the discovery of the gas has further re-enforced the need for the nearly six-month-old evacuation order to remain in place.
Four vent wells are now removing 34,000 cubic feet per day of natural gas from a reservoir of 50 million to 100 million cubic feet of gas underlying the communities.
As of 3 p.m. Thursday, a variety of wells, including the four now venting and some no longer operating, have removed a combined total of nearly 5.6 million cubic feet of gas, parish officials said.
John Boudreaux, director of the parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, told the parish Police Jury on Wednesday in Napoleonville that Texas Brine has plans to install five other vent wells while the Rig Road is under construction.
Two are partially finished on existing well pads on Texas Brine’s lease. Two more are planned north of La. 70 near two existing vent wells. A fifth is planned south of La. 70 closer to the Bayou Corne community, he said.
“Their reasoning for doing this is until they get that road built up, the Rig Road built up, they don’t have access to get a rig in and start vent wells that have been planned in the commissioner’s orders, so they’re actually doing these (wells) in preparation for that road to be completed,” Boudreaux said.
The incremental progress has offered little respite for some, with a few Bayou Corne residents telling jurors Wednesday they were ready to move on and wanted buyouts.
“I don’t care if they ever fix the damned sinkhole. It could go all the way to China as far as I care. I want to get on with my life,” said evacuee Kenny Simoneaux, 56, a truck driver who is living with his wife in a camper in Pierre Part.
Cranch said Thursday all of Texas Brine’s efforts and resources are currently directed toward the variety of steps required for sinkhole response, but added the company is “very aware of the buyout issue.”