Officials tally 5½-acre sinkhole cost
Assumption Parish officials have asked Texas Brine Co. of Houston to reimburse the parish for about $321,000 spent in its response to a sinkhole now believed to have been caused by the company’s failed salt cavern.
The 5.5-acre sinkhole between Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou south of La. 70 South was found early Aug. 3, prompting a mandatory evacuation of 150 homes in the area the same evening. The evacuation remains in place.
Parish officials and state agencies set up a command post in Bayou Corne to monitor and respond daily to changes in the sinkhole.
Manpower costs, especially overtime, are mounting for the parish, officials said, as the Sheriff’s Office and parish Police Jury keep personnel stationed at the command post. Also, the sheriff has deputies monitoring evacuated areas 24 hours day.
“It is costly for this office and the parish to continue to police this thing,” Sheriff Mike Waguespack said .
Louisiana Department of Natural Resources officials and scientists with Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure have said the side wall of the cavern inside the Napoleonville Dome breached and allowed in 3.3 million cubic yards of sediments and naturally occurring oil and gas.
The movement of compacted earth resulted in underground instability next to the dome and led to the sinkhole, which is located 200 feet northwest of the cavern. This shift of sediments also forced brine from the cavern, which provided a conduit for the pockets of oil and natural gas to go to the surface.
The cavern is near the western edge of the Napoleonville Dome, a 1-by-3-mile salt deposit that stretches from deep underground to about 700 feet below the surface.
Waguespack said he submitted a bill earlier this month to Texas Brine for more than $125,000 for the first portion of the response, including manpower, supplies and meals. He said he is giving Texas Brine 30 days to pay but more bills will be forthcoming.
Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche said the jury submitted a bill of $196,000 last week to Texas Brine’s office in Houston.
“We are not a wealthy parish,” Triche said. “We have already had expenses of $196,000, and they are continuing to add up, and Assumption Parish taxpayers should not have to foot this bill.”
During a community meeting in Pierre Part on Tuesday, Triche pressed Mark Cartwright, a Texas Brine company president, about reimbursing the parish’s expenses, but Cartwright said he was not at the meeting to address that issue.
On Thursday, Sonny Cranch, Texas Brine spokesman, said both bills are being reviewed by the company.
Louisiana Office of Conservation Commissioner James Welsh issued an order Oct. 11 laying the blame on the failure of Texas Brine’s cavern for the sinkhole, related oil and gas releases at the surface and in the cavern as well as natural gas collection in the aquifer.
But DNR officials have said the order is not a determination of the legally responsible party, a finding that will come later. Rather, the order laid the basis for having Texas Brine take steps to monitor the sinkhole and cavern and remove the natural gas underground.
DNR spokesman Patrick Courreges said Thursday the agency will wait on the legal determination of responsibility before attempting to recoup its costs.
Texas Brine is making $875 weekly housing assistance payments to displaced Bayou Corne residents.
But Texas Brine’s original cavern permit from the Office of Conservation required those payments be made in the event of a sinkhole near the company’s operations that lead to evacuations. The requirement applies whether or not Texas Brine’s actions directly caused the sinkhole, the office has reported.
Waguespack said the majority of his revenue derives from property taxes and comes at the beginning of each calendar year after tax bills are paid. The end of the calendar year is often a time when cash for property tax-reliant governments is on the low side.
“I am concerned about the cost we’re incurring. I don’t have a tremendous fund balance, and this has really put a damper on our cash flow,” said Waguespack, who is a certified public accountant.
According to the Sheriff’s Office audit for fiscal 2010-11, the most recent available, the office had a combined fund balance of nearly $1.2 million. A little more than $1 million of that was not dedicated when that fiscal year ended June 30, 2011.