Camp owner says pay due for evacuation

Sinkhole keeps retirees from second homes

The sugar and non-dairy creamer for Harley Brown’s coffee was rock hard Friday inside his chilly camp on Bayou Corne.

Filled with family pictures and trophies — both for the fish that were caught and the one that got away — the home in the swamps of northern Assumption Parish has been the hub of family gatherings for the Brown clan’s 40-odd members for 23 years.

Regular additions for the Baton Rouge resident’s cup of coffee while on the bayou, the sugar and creamer bore witness to what’s on Brown’s mind these days.

His camp on Crawfish Stew Street has been out of commission since Aug. 3 when a large sinkhole formed nearby, prompting an evacuation of his neighborhood and a few residents in the Grand Bayou area.

Private industry scientists and regulators with the Louisiana Office of Conservation said they believe a Texas Brine Co. LLC salt cavern failed and caused the sinkhole.

In early October, Houston-based Texas Brine cut off $875 weekly housing assistance payments to about 15 camp owners whose primary residences were determined not to be in the evacuation area, company officials confirmed.

That move has Brown, 77, and fishing buddy James C. Gremillion, 83, of Central upset and feeling that they have been dealt with unfairly.

Both men are retired and said the camps are second homes they used several days a week as a home base for fishing trips and a place for relaxation.

“I think any time you take something of mine, you need to reimburse me some way,” said Brown, who retired as a manager in the landfill business.

“Texas Brine has taken from me my peaceful pleasure of utilizing my retirement years. I worked several years to get that place like I have it now, and it has been taken away from me through no fault mine and no fault of God.

“This has been a tragedy that was caused by Texas Brine, and they should have to make it right for what they have done.”

Gremillion, a retired plumber, added that though they can’t use their camps, they still have bills to pay to maintain them and he wants Texas Brine to resume paying him the weekly checks.

“I’d like to get them because I’m paying about $200 a month down there now, and I ain’t been able to use it,” Gremillion said.

The evacuation remains in place as methane, suspected of being unleashed by the cavern failure, has also been found in shallow sands under the area.

The evacuation encompasses the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou communities, and the sinkhole is located in swamps between the communities and south of La. 70 South.

Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, said that Texas Brine’s original permit for the cavern says that “when an evacuation is required due to sinkhole formation, assistance is to be provided to occupants of any residences threatened by the area of collapse.”

Under those terms, the company began making the weekly payments Aug. 17.

Sonny Cranch, spokesman for Texas Brine, said the purpose is to assist evacuees “who lived in the evacuation zone with any expenses they might have incurred finding food and shelter elsewhere,”

The fund, to which Texas Brine has been the sole contributor, has provided more than $1.9 million through the last set of payments made Thursday, he said.

Cranch said the company began making the weekly housing assistance payments to property owners on a list of all affected properties in the evacuation zone provided by the parish.

But, he said, the company began looking into the primary residency of property owners after residents told company officials that camp owners were receiving assistance checks.

The company looked at where property owners had their homestead exemption, a property tax break that state law provides homeowners for their primary residence.

“So in our mind, they (the camp owners) were not true evacuees as opposed to those individuals whose primary residence was within the boundaries of the evacuation zone,” he said.

Cranch said the company will not seek to recoup the prior payments the camp owners received.

“We simply decided that those who owned camps within the zone would no longer be issued evacuee assistance since they, in the truest sense of word, did not evacuate,” Cranch said.

He said the loss that the camp owners, like Brown, are talking about is called loss of use.

“That is a completely different issue and must be addressed under a completely different method, which I am not prepared to explain,” Cranch said.

Brown said he has considered suing Texas Brine but would rather not take that course unless he has no other option.

Cranch said he has not heard any indication that DNR would disagree with the company’s view of the permit requirements.

John Boudreaux, director of the parish Office of the Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the parish is happy Texas Brine is paying for evacuated residents, but the company’s decision to cut off camp owners gave parish officials “a lot of heartburn.”

“And we do think they need to compensate those camp owners, but it is something that has become a civil (matter) between them and Texas Brine,” he said.