Texas Brine Co. has moved contractors working on the Bayou Corne-area sinkhole into three homes the company purchased from residents who left after the failure of a company-operated salt dome cavern.
Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said two homes in the Sportsman Drive neighborhood south of La. 70 have been occupied for three weeks.
A home on Crawfish Stew Street north of La. 70 has been occupied since January.
The Bayou Corne community has been under a mandatory evacuation order since the sinkhole emerged Aug. 3, 2012, and flammable methane gas was released as a result.
Cranch said the homes will be occupied as long as the contractors work on the 29-acre swampland hole. He said housing them at the site allows Texas Brine to save on the cost of hotel reimbursements.
“They’re using it as temporary housing so they don’t have to make the commute from motels in Gonzales, Donaldsonville or wherever,” Cranch said.
Scientist have long suspected that methane gas, which is at an elevated pressure underground, could rise and pose an explosive risk to residents in the area. The fear has been that the colorless, odorless methane could accumulate in enclosed spaces under homes or in closets and explode.
Methane gas has bubbled up in the bayous, and millions of cubic feet of gas have been burned off from underground.
Cranch pointed out no methane or hydrogen sulfide gases have been detected by air monitors installed in the homes of residents or outside in the community.
“We don’t believe it’s unsafe,” Cranch said, adding the parish’s command center is in middle of the evacuation zone.
Scientists think the sinkhole formed after a Texas Brine-operated cavern had some sort of wall breach when the cavity was mined too close to the outer face of the Napoleonville Dome, a massive salt deposit. The salt dome cavern is owned by Occidental Chemical Corp.
Under pressure from Gov. Bobby Jindal, Texas Brine began buying out some of the estimated 150 or so homes near the sinkhole last spring.
Cranch said Texas Brine closed on the last of 66 bought-out properties March 21.
Some residents have remained in the community that once had 350 people, but many have moved away or evacuated.
Under state Department of Natural Resources orders, Texas Brine continues to make weekly evacuation assistance payments of $875 to residents who are not bought out and have evacuated or remain in Bayou Corne.
Opinion from two residents who remain in the community was divided about the new neighbors.
“It is Texas Brine’s property, and they have the right to do what they want with it, but to thumb their noses at evacuees and those whose properties they have pried away in an agonizing settlement caused by this very same company’s ignorance and greed is in my opinion highly inflammatory and irresponsible,” said Mike Schaff, 64, who lives north of La. 70.
Dennis Landry, who owns cabins in Bayou Corne and lives south of La. 70 in the Sportsman Drive subdivision, said he doesn’t see moving contractors into the homes as a public relations move by the company.
“We don’t see it that way at all, but I could see how some people could interpret it that way,” Landry said.
Though the sinkhole has had some recent slough-ins, Landry said he is counting on worst-case projections from the state showing the sinkhole won’t reach his neighborhood, La. 70 or the Bayou Corne waterway.
Cranch said it just made sense to have its workers live near the hole.
Texas Brine officials have argued for months they are approaching the end of feasible gas removal.
On the other hand, scientists working for DNR say the amount of gas trapped underground could be far more than first thought and may be recharging from another source.
John Boudreaux, director of the parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the evacuation is mandatory but not forced.
“Anyone that’s moving in understands that any risk involved in living here is a risk they take upon themselves,” said Boudreaux, whose command post is in the evacuation zone.