Texas Brine fights fines

Lawsuit: State deadlines didn’t give enough time

Texas Brine Co. LLC is challenging $160,000 in fines that the Louisiana Office of Conservation levied against the company Dec. 17 for failing to meet state-mandated deadlines in its response to an 8.5-acre sinkhole emergency in northern Assumption Parish, company officials confirmed Friday.

But during the Christmas break, the Houston-based company paid another $100,000 in fines issued Dec. 1 by the state office over similar response delays, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources said Friday.

The company’s attorneys and its insurers also on Friday reached handshake agreements with the parish Police Jury and Sheriff’s Office about reimbursement of their running costs of more than $500,000 to deal with the sinkhole problem and agreed to work on hammering out plans for payment of costs on future sinkhole response efforts, parish officials said.

Meetings were held Friday in New Orleans, parish officials said. Attorneys were also set to meet with representatives of the state of Louisiana later Friday, said John Boudreaux, director of the parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

State Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell sent Texas Brine a demand letter in early November claiming nearly $3.5 million in expenses for the Louisiana departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and others.

“This has been a very extensive and risky detail we have had performed,” Assumption Parish Sheriff Mike Waguespack said in an interview Friday after his office’s discussions with Texas Brine and their insurers.

“We’re just glad they’re stepping up to the plate and handling their responsibility,” the sheriff said.

Laura Gerdes Colligan, spokeswoman for Caldwell, declined comment Friday.

Taken with a lawsuit filed in East Baton Rouge Parish last week to block the newest sinkhole response orders from Louisiana Conservation Commissioner James Welsh, the moves point to Texas Brine’s attempts to begin settling lingering issues raised by the sinkhole incident now more than five months old.

Filed Dec. 28 in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, the Texas Brine lawsuit contends other means exist to accomplish the goals sought by Welsh in his Dec. 7 orders and not enough time was provided to do what Welsh directed.

Scientists in the Office of Conservation and as well as other scientists under contract to the state suspect the failure of an abandoned Texas Brine cavern in the Napoleonville Dome led to the evolving sinkhole between the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou communities along with underground tremors and releases of natural gas and crude oil in the area.

In a letter dated Dec. 27, one day before the lawsuit was filed, attorneys for Texas Brine requested that Welsh hold an administrative hearing on the $160,000 in fines stemming from a Nov. 12 response order.

Welsh ordered the fines because Texas Brine failed to build a containment system around the salty, oily sinkhole and install in-home methane detectors and ventilation systems in slab foundation structures in the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou communities.

Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said Friday that company officials asked for the hearing to challenge the fines because they felt the timelines Welsh ordered were too compressed to get the jobs done properly.

“And the fact was, we were making a good-faith effort to respond to the order,” Cranch said.

Cranch pointed to a Dec. 19 statement on the company’s website detailing some of the hurdles it has faced in responding to the state directives that prompted the Dec. 17 fines, including permitting for the swampland containment system and landowner access.

Methane, a colorless and odorless gas, underlies those areas, scientists have said, and they fear the gas could, if left alone, accumulate in homes and structures to explosive levels.

“In those directives, the Office of Conservation ordered Texas Brine to take actions necessary to ensure the safety of the public and the environment in the Bayou Corne area, which are threatened by the conditions created by the failure of Texas Brine’s cavern,” said Patrick Courreges, DNR spokesman.

Twenty-third Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin said his office had been working on a formal demand letter over the Assumption Parish Police Jury’s costs, but it was on hold pending the expected discussions Friday.

Babin said the parish has a legal basis for the reimbursement under the same state civil tort law that also applies to legal issues such as compensation after a car accident.

Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche and Sheriff Waguespack both said the company and insurers went over bills for back costs Friday.

Waguespack said his office had accrued $212,000 in costs through Dec. 16. Boudreaux said the Police Jury had run up nearly $300,000 in costs through Nov. 30.

Waguespack said he and Texas Brine plan to work out a memorandum of understanding outlining the past and future costs.

Triche, who said a similar memorandum is planned for the Police Jury, said the company’s emergency response manager and Boudreaux are expected to meet to discuss future response efforts.