BY MICHELLE MILLHOLLON
Capitol news bureau
March 19, 2013
Texas Brine officials told legislators Monday that Assumption Parish residents will start receiving phone calls this week to begin a buyout process.
“The first step is to make contact,” said Bruce Martin, vice president of operations for Texas Brine.
The assurances came during a public hearing at the State Capitol on the now nearly 10-acre sinkhole. Members of the Louisiana House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment met jointly with the Senate committees on natural resources and environmental quality.
Martin told legislators that an appraisal firm will start making phone calls this week to residents who expressed an interest in selling their homes.
Legislators pressed Texas Brine for details on who will be making the phone calls and what kind of offers will be made.
State Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, said residents need to feel that they are getting a fair value.
Nearly one acre of swamp on the western edge of the sinkhole fell, or sloughed, early Sunday when the slurry hole had one of its periodic burps, parish officials said in a blog post.
The edge collapse happened in swamps just west of a pipeline corridor that at one time formed part of the once-smaller sinkhole’s far western edge.
The sinkhole developed Aug. 3 and led to a standing mandatory evacuation of 150 residences in the area. Some residents heeded the order; others chose to stay.
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. The collapse released oil and gas.
The company has paid $4 million in housing subsidies to residents displaced by the sinkhole.
Gov. Bobby Jindal met with Texas Brine officials last week in Baton Rouge. The governor emerged from the meeting with the announcement that the company would hire a third-party appraiser to assess the value of residents’ homes.
Jindal, who has not visited the site, is supposed to do so sometime this week.
Complicating the buyout process is the fact that some residents filed lawsuits over the sinkhole. Environmental activist Erin Brockovich recently met with residents about the possibility of another lawsuit on behalf of Bayou Corne property owners.
Troy Charpentier, an attorney for Texas Brine, said residents with representation will be spoken to through their attorneys.
State Sen. Rick Ward III, D-Maringouin, wanted to know if the buyout will cover just property or a complete settlement of related claims.
Charpentier said a settlement of all claims is contemplated.
“We’ll attempt to reach some resolution of their claim as a whole,” he said.
Charpentier gave a timeline of how the buyout process will proceed.
First, property owners will receive a phone call from an appraisal firm to schedule a time for their property to be examined. Property visits will start next week. Buyout offers will begin within 30 days.
State Sen. Troy Brown, D-Geismer, asked if the appraisal will exclude the damage to property values caused by the sinkhole.
Charpentier said the appraisals will be done as if it were the day before the sinkhole was discovered.
St. Germain asked Texas Brine to consider turning back the calendar even further. She said there were problems with tremors and bubbles leading up to the sinkhole’s discovery. She suggested a date of May 30, 2012.
“Look a little further back,” she urged.
The collapse of earth, which parish officials estimated as 0.95 acres, brings the sinkhole’s lake-like surface to nearly 10 acres. The burp and slough-in followed a period of increased seismic activity last week deep under the sinkhole and near the failed cavern that has since subsided, parish officials said.
The burp was recorded shortly after 3 a.m. Sunday, surfacing oily hydrocarbons and debris from the 140-foot-deep sinkhole, parish officials said.
Shallow tremors continue currently, state Office of Conservation experts said, probably from the sinkhole’s sides falling in and water moving in the sinkhole and below it, parish officials reported.
Conservation officials, Texas Brine officials and experts have said the sinkhole is gradually finding a stable size and shape as the damaged salt dome cavern fills with rock flowing in from outside the cavern.
Advocate writer David Mitchell contributed to this report.