Conservation Office cites lack of compliance with its orders
The Louisiana Office of Conservation commissioner levied another $160,000 in fines against Texas Brine Co. LLC on Monday for continued failure to comply with his directives for an 8-acre sinkhole and oil and methane releases in northern Assumption Parish.
Commissioner James Welsh fined the Houston company $80,000 for failing to install a containment system around the brine-filled, oil-tinged sinkhole near Bayou Corne, and another $80,000 for failing to install in-home methane monitors and home ventilation systems in slab foundation structures in the area, Office of Conservation officials said in a news release.
The new fines come in addition to $100,000 in fines Welsh issued against Texas Brine on Dec. 1 and bring total company fines in relation to the sinkhole response to $260,000, Conservation officials said.
Missed deadlines for sinkhole containment and methane detection prompted about $90,000 of the $100,000 in fines levied Dec. 1, Conservation officials have said. The directives stem from a Nov. 12 order.
The containment system is intended to keep contaminants from spreading outside the sinkhole, where oil retardant boom is already installed.
Work related to methane detection and ventilation is intended to limit the risk that the invisible, explosive gas could accumulate unseen in residents’ homes and sheds, Conservation Office officials and contract scientists have said.
Welsh said his office’s goal is to protect the public and the environment and get evacuated Bayou Corne residents back home as soon as possible.
“If monetary penalties are what is required to provide Texas Brine with the same sense of urgency Conservation feels in addressing the problems caused by the failure of the company’s cavern, then we’ll continue to make clear to the company the cost of its inaction,” he said in the statement.
Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, which includes Conservation, said Texas Brine has not paid the first round of fines.
The fines are legal debts and the company is obligated to pay them under the state regulations allowing it operate, Courreges said in an interview.
Welsh notified the company Monday that it had to pay the new fines, comply with the directives immediately and could face further fines with continued failure.
Scientists believe the sidewall of an abandoned Texas Brine salt cavern failed deep underground. This failure, scientists say, set in motion a series of events that created the sinkhole, released methane and crude oil into the sinkhole and cavern, and unleashed methane also in a underground aquifer and into surface waterways in the area.
The sinkhole is located between the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou communities south of La. 70 South on property leased by Texas Brine from Occidental Petroleum Corp. Texas Brine supplies brine to the Los Angeles-based company.
About 150 households in Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou were evacuated Aug. 3 after the sinkhole was found. The evacuation remains in place, more than four months later.
A Texas Brine spokesman said Monday they have been working on the orders but the work is taking time, including lining up landowner agreements for the monitor installation and doing the engineering, permitting and separate landowner agreements to design and build a containment system in the swamp surrounding the sinkhole.
“Texas Brine has been working in good faith and as quickly as we can to respond to the order,” said Sonny Cranch, spokesman for Texas Brine.
He noted the company collected 51 access forms from residents who have slab foundation structures. Scientists have said it is these buildings, not those on piers, that are at risk from methane accumulation.
Forty-five homeowners initially granted access but seven of them have since withdrawn permission, Cranch said.
He said the access agreements are used to determine where best to install ventilation systems and monitors, which he said are not off-the-shelf products and must be installed by contractors.
Cranch said that by the end of the week, Texas Brine will have 20 homes inspected. He said some homeowners have asked to hold off on assessments until after the holidays.
Welsh noted in the statement Monday that Texas Brine also has been unable to comply with the third directive that prompted fines on Dec. 1, two new methane vent wells near its facility.
But Welsh did not fine the company again on Monday. He noted that Texas Brine reported that it has not been able to get landowner access.