Bayou Corne property owners face Saturday deadline

The battle for Mike Schaff to keep his home after a sinkhole appeared in Assumption Parish almost two years ago has been long and emotional, but it may be coming to an end.

Schaff, 64, a 24-year resident of Bayou Corne, has been an outspoken critic of Texas Brine Co., and, at times, the state, over the sinkhole and the events leading up to its appearance in swampland near his home in early August 2012.

While his neighbors have slowly moved away, some taking direct buyouts from Texas Brine — the company whose salt mining is blamed for the disaster — Schaff has remained in an increasingly vacant neighborhood north of La. 70.

Schaff helped organize neighbors who remained, went to legislative hearings and became involved with Gen. Russel HonorĂ©’s Green Army.

Schaff and dozens of other property owners also are plaintiffs in a federal class-action lawsuit against Texas Brine, and Saturday is a critical deadline for them: They must decide by then whether to stay in the suit, accept the property buyout and damages award and move away from a place many viewed as a tiny bit of paradise, or remain in Bayou Corne, keep their homes and opt out of the suit and fight Texas Brine alone.

Schaff said he is nearly certain he is going to remain in the suit, which means he will soon be leaving Bayou Corne.

Texas Brine will buy his home based on an appraisal and pay him other damages from his share of a $48.1 million settlement the company and lawyers reached in the spring.

“If they could make the sinkhole go away and replace the swamp like it was, I wouldn’t take a penny. In fact, I would donate to that cause,” Schaff said last week. “But that’s not going happen.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Lawrence J. Centola III, who sits on the steering committee overseeing the litigation that consolidated various state and federal court suits from residents, said most plaintiffs are opting in.

Centola said the opt-outs have been few and not unexpected, but he won’t have precise numbers until after the Saturday deadline.

“In fact, we have four people who already sold their property, based on that appraised value, to Texas Brine,” Centola said.

He added that only those who want to opt out had to do something by Saturday. Residents who remain in the suit must fill out claims forms by July 19.

The buyouts will relieve Texas Brine of the $875 weekly evacuation assistance payments the company has been making since shortly after the sinkhole formed, to the tune of $10.1 million.

Parish officials estimate that residents occupy 20 to 25 homes in Bayou Corne; Texas Brine says it is making evacuation payments to about 78 households.

Centola said almost all residents have seen their appraisals, which offer replacement value, but a special master is reviewing claims for all other damages ahead of a hearing before U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey 10 a.m. Aug. 13 in New Orleans.

At the hearing, Zainey will review the fairness of the settlement process. Objections to the settlement also must be postmarked by Saturday.

Several other suits are pending by large landowners and pipeline companies and headed for trial.

Texas Brine moved contractors working on the sinkhole into five homes already purchased through prior buyout efforts, but Texas Brine officials said in a statement Thursday that they have not decided what they will ultimately do with the homes they buy.

“Consideration is being given to removing the structures from the property and returning it to green space,” the statement says.

Growth of the sinkhole has slowed since last fall, and the latest estimate in April reports it’s now 32.2 acres but has not threatened La. 70 or the Bayou Corne waterway. The broad area of shallow, sunken swamp around the submerged edge of the sinkhole also remains largely within containment levees, maps show.

Scientists have said they believe the sinkhole was caused by a Texas Brine-operated salt dome cavern mined too closely to the outer face of a massive underground salt deposit, known as a salt dome. The mining led to a breach in the underground cavity that shifted surrounding rock, leading to the sinkhole.

Several suits have alleged the company had warning signs years earlier, but officials continued to mine close to the salt edge. Texas Brine and even state experts have said that while there may have been a risk to the continued usability of the cavern, no one believed a cavern breach could have caused the sinkhole.

The sinkhole’s formation also released underground deposits of methane gas that state and parish officials have said pose a safety concern. Texas Brine officials dispute this claim but, because of standing state orders, have burned off 33 million cubic feet of the gas through vent wells. The company says it sees an end to that process by the end of the year.

“Well venting rates continue to decline, indicating progress is being made in depleting the area gas cap,” Texas Brine officials said in a statement.

Parish officials estimated it will take longer to remove the gas but are waiting on new estimates of how much gas remains.

Schaff said a major factor in his decision to leave was that his wife won’t live in Bayou Corne, the place they planned to retire. He said he understands why and is looking for a new home to replace what he had.

“We want to live somewhere we can go fishing and have a country life. We have been looking around. We got a couple prospects in mind. Nothing to replace Bayou Corne,” Schaff said. “There is no community down here that is like this. I found that strange that I couldn’t match that.”

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.