Bayou Corne residents push for home buyout

Accountability  asked of panel

On the 200th day of their mandatory evacuation, Assumption Parish residents asked legislators for help Tuesday in persuading Texas Brine Co. LLC to buy homes affected by an 8.6-acre sinkhole.

Bayou Corne homeowner Candy Blanchard said she will never again feel safe in the house she built six years ago.

“Texas Brine has taught me more about purgatory and limbo, and I went to Catholic school, than the nuns could,” Blanchard said.

In response, legislators pressed Texas Brine officials for their position on buyouts. The company said it is in conversations with its insurance carrier.

The Louisiana House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment met jointly with the Senate committees on natural resources and environmental quality to hear from officials and the public about an ongoing saga that started unfolding with a May 30 phone call about a natural gas leak in Bayou Corne.

The committees will hold a second public hearing on March 18 at the State Capitol.

The sinkhole developed Aug. 3 and led to a standing mandatory evacuation of 150 residences in the area. The sinkhole is south of La. 70 South on property controlled by Texas Brine Co. LLC of Houston and is believed to have been caused by a sidewall collapse at more than 5,000 feet deep, releasing oil and gas.

With the discovery of methane under the area, many homeowners heeded orders to leave six months ago while vent wells burn off the gas.

Legislators heard about the history and the science of the sinkhole during a four-hour meeting Tuesday.

Residents and officials packed the largest Senate committee room at the State Capitol, requiring staff to open a second room for the overflow.

Gary Hecox, a geologist with CB&I, said the cavern still is collapsing.

He said it will take more than a year to fill the hole.

Bruce Martin, vice president of operations for Texas Brine, said the company has provided $3.5 million in housing assistance to residents and will continue to make payments while the mandatory evacuation order is in place. He said little additional growth of the sinkhole is expected.

“We’re at the point where this has become a scientific experiment,” state Rep. Joe Harrison complained. “This could go on for years.”

Harrison, R-Napoleonville, said homeowners’ property is unmarketable.

Texas Brine officials noted that the cause of the sinkhole is the source of pending litigation.

Martin said some homeowners want to stay while others want to sell their homes. He said a representative is on site in Louisiana to collect house values and legal descriptions.

“We will continue to have discussions with our insurance carrier,” Martin said.

State Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, assured residents that the crisis would not happen again. She said she is working on legislation for the session that starts in April.

Assumption Parish Police Juror Henry Dupre urged legislators to consider building a bypass road and to review policies on the plugging and abandonment of caverns used to store gas, oil and other hydrocarbons.

Like others, Dupre reminded the committees that residents have lived under a mandatory evacuation order for 200 days.

“We need to hold Texas Brine accountable, bring them to the table and discuss buyouts,” he said.

Dennis Landry, who owns Cajun Cabins of Bayou Corne, said he is in a shaky financial position because the sinkhole response team is using his property. Landry’s property includes a boat landing, cabins and RV sites. He said he can only hope that his regular clients will return once the response team leaves.

He said some compensation is in order for destroyed property values.

“Those of us who have remained, it has not been a bed of roses,” Landry said.

Another resident, J.C. Chamberlain, said residents are not making a killing on the money from Texas Brine.

He said he still must pay his mortgage even though he is paying rent somewhere else.

“Why force people to pursue avenues of litigation?” he asked.

Later in the day, Gov. Bobby Jindal responded to criticism raised during the meeting that he has not been personally involved in the sinkhole crisis. The governor, who was out of the state almost one day of every four last year, has not visited the site.

“We receive regular updates on the situation. Through my orders, agencies have deployed an abundance of resources to the sinkhole area,” the governor said in a prepared statement released by his press office.

Mark Ballard of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.