Jindal warns against premature sinkhole conclusions

GONZALES - Gov. Bobby Jindal said Thursday said it is premature to draw conclusions from Texas Brine Co.'s new seismic report on the stability of Assumption Parish's sinkhole underpinnings until independent experts and a special panel have had a chance to review the data.

Jindal also said the Houston-company has put a positive interpretation on the data and, even if those conclusions were accepted, the findings do not lessen Texas Brine's need to offer buyouts to evacuated property owners.

"In no way does this mitigate their obligation in terms of buyouts. In no way does this mitigate their obligations in terms of cleaning up the mess they've created," Jindal said of Texas Brine during a news conference he attended in Gonzales to announce a new methanol plant would be locating in Ascension Parish.

"In no way does this mitigate their obligations to the people, the families that have been impacted and to the state of Louisiana."

Texas Brine summarized its conclusions about a large three-dimensional seismic survey underneath the sinkhole and vicinity during a presentation Monday to an industry conference in Lafayette. A more detailed company report was posted later the same day on the Louisiana Office of Conservation website.

Though the 13-acre sinkhole continues to periodically rumble and grow, the area of instability involved extends to a depth of only 400 feet, while deeper subsurface strata are stable, the company says the data show.

Many of the worst fears related to the sinkhole's emergence last year were not affirmed by the seismic survey, the company says, including voids that could create new sinkholes, extensive damage to the western edge of a key salt dome under the area and the existence of multiple sources for the oil and gas still surfacing in the area.

Sonny Cranch, spokesman for Texas Brine, said Thursday the company's findings "should have no effect" on the proposed settlements being negotiated with residents who want to leave.

He said the company expects to begin making settlement offers to residents who do not have attorneys in about two weeks and so far has conducted nearly 90 initial inspections of homes.

Cranch has said the company is working separately with attorneys representing plaintiffs in lawsuits over the sinkhole.

Scientists believe a Texas Brine cavern in the Napoleonville Dome was mined too close to the salt deposit's face and failed last year, setting in motion the tremors, the sinkhole and oil and gas releases.

In addition to dealing with sinkhole lawsuits filed in both state and federal courts, the company has been under pressure from Jindal and others to offer buyouts to residents who want to leave. About 350 people in the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou communities have been under evacuation orders since the sinkhole was found Aug. 3.

The state Office of Conservation ordered Texas Brine to conduct the study and has its own expert who will review the raw data and reach conclusions during the next few weeks, Conservation officials have said.

Jindal also said the 13-member Blue Ribbon Commission formed to evaluate the sinkhole and related issues, which includes additional experts from around the world, was created "on purpose" to provide an independent assessment of the situation, including looking at the raw data from the seismic survey. He said that review is going to take about two weeks.

"It's way too early. It's way premature. It's too soon to make any conclusions based on that data," the governor said.

Jindal said experts are interested in what the data says about underground natural gas. Texas Brine has said the data shows gas migrating to the surface came from a single source, but that gas as well as the oil held in that single pocket is now "virtually gone."

The gas, which is continuing to be burned off from far shallower strata than that source, is one of the reasons, parish officials have said, that the evacuation order remains in effect.

Community reaction to the Texas Brine report drew skepticism and fears from some that buyouts might be shelved and the parish evacuation ended prematurely, though parish officials said they are waiting on what Blue-Ribbon Commission members and other experts say.

Carla Alleman, 51, who has been evacuated since Aug. 3 from Bayou Corne, said she expects Texas Brine's consultants to lean the company's way. She asserted the report is part of an effort to minimize the impact of the sinkhole and cavern failure.

"I think it's a strategic move from Texas Brine from long ago. In my opinion, I think they had no intention of buying anyone out. They were buying their time until they could back away from what they said," said Alleman, a plaintiff in one of four federal lawsuits filed over the sinkhole.

Linda Leavitt Westberg, a New Orleans-based environmentalist with the Gulf Coast Environmental and Health Coalition who is tracking the sinkhole, urged residents to wait on the state commission, which she believed could give an independent review.

"When a company is under the gun, they are going to look at every opportunity to lessen their liability," Westberg said.

Cranch said Texas Brine is confident its consultant's conclusions are supported by the data.

"It is the most intensive 3-D seismic study in the United States of which we are aware," he said.

The 3-D data was produced through an "active" seismic survey of an area covering 2.28 square miles. Designed and overseen by consulting geophysicist Kevin Hill, the survey was based on about 48,900 data traces collected from underground seismic reflections and resulted in what Hill and others have said is a highly detailed picture.

äON THE INTERNET:

See Conservation statement and link to Texas Brine report at http://dnr.louisiana.gov/index.cfm?md=pagebuilder&tmp=home&pid=939