Governor plans visit to Bayou Corne sinkhole

Gov. Bobby Jindal met privately with Assumption Parish officials Monday at the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge to discuss the Bayou Corne-area sinkhole and said he plans to pay a visit to the site next week, officials said Monday.

Jindal also plans to meet with Texas Brine Co. LLC officials Wednesday about the possibility of “expedited” buyouts of evacuated residents affected by the sinkhole, which is believed to have been caused by the failure of one of the company’s salt dome caverns.

“It’s time for Texas Brine to step up and do the right thing for the people of Bayou Corne,” Jindal said in a prepared statement.

Jindal also said in the statement that he outlined for parish officials contingency plans in the event that second Texas Brine cavern fails. The potential failure of a second cavern has raised concerns about the integrity of La. 70 South.

Jindal’s meeting with parish leaders Monday came amid increasing pressure on the governor to meet with residents of Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou who were forced to evacuate their homes after the sinkhole was found Aug. 3 in swamps between those two communities.

Scientists believe the Texas Brine cavern was mined too close to the edge of the Napoleonville Dome, a massive underground salt deposit in northern Assumption from which the cavern had been carved. That led to a cavern sidewall collapse more than 5,000 feet deep, causing the sinkhole and the release of oil and gas from natural formations.

Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche told reporters after Monday’s meeting that it is important for the governor to visit with residents, see the sinkhole and get a firsthand look at concerns about La. 70, a major thoroughfare in the parish.

“He has committed to doing that, and so we’re glad we’re moving in that direction,” Triche said.

He described the meeting as frank and informal, saying local leaders discussed their concerns.

In a telephone interview, Brandon Alleman, 30, who built a house on La. 70 in Bayou Corne two years ago for his wife and two young children, said he’s glad to hear the governor will visit Bayou Corne but wished he would have come sooner.

“I guess it’s better late than never, and I hope he can do something to help us out and get us on with our lives,” Alleman said.

Alleman and his wife are plaintiffs in one of the four consolidated lawsuits against Texas Brine in federal court in New Orleans. He said he bought property in nearby Pierre Part and is living there with his family in mobile home.

He said his daughter, 4, often talks about missing their home in Bayou Corne where many of her toys and an outside play-set remain. Alleman said he and his family are ready to be bought out.

“I just had enough,” he said.

When asked about possible buyouts in the past, Texas Brine officials have said they have been focused on the response effort. On Monday, Sonny Cranch, spokesman for Texas Brine, said company officials plan to meet with Jindal.

“We look forward to the meeting and to the opportunity to discuss the many issues surrounding the sinkhole,” Cranch said.

New seismic testing — which has not yet been verified — indicated last week that a second Texas Brine cavern, known as Oxy Geismar No. 1, is closer than once believed to the outer face of the same salt dome.

This proximity raises the risk for cavern instability, according to Jindal’s statement. The Texas Brine cavern that failed, Oxy Geismar No. 3, ran into similar problems.

State regulators say no signs have been detected for the failure of Oxy 1 but major public safety risks from such a failure would include a new sinkhole and the release of hydrogen sulfide gas, Jindal’s statement says. The gas is lethal at high enough concentrations.

Oxy 3, the cavern that failed, had already raised concerns about the integrity of La. 70, but Oxy 1 is about 500 feet closer than Oxy 3 . The caverns are on the same Texas Brine site south of La. 70 and east of the existing sinkhole.

The new contingency plans include three-tiered, color-coded response levels, depending on the seismic activity associated with the Oxy 1 cavern.

The current status is at the lowest level because no micro-seismic activity associated with the Oxy 1 cavern has been detected. That level includes monitoring of La. 70, preparation for its closure and modeling of the cavern’s and the salt dome’s stability.

The highest level — if hundreds of micro-seismic events are detected within a 12-hour period — would call for evacuations and shutting of natural gas wells due to potential hydrogen sulfide releases. A similar high number of micro-seismic events, sometimes called sharp tremors, preceded the formation of the first sinkhole.

Triche and the Louisiana Office of Conservation, which regulates salt dome operators like Texas Brine, have asked the company to consider buyouts for those who want them.

He said recent concerns about Oxy 1 suggest the response is “going to be a long-term marathon” that residents don’t need to endure.

“So we think that buyouts is a reasonable thing that Texas Brine needs to do,” he said. “It’s not too much to ask.”

Sherri LeBas, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, said her agency is looking at a short- and long-term alternative routes around the area of concern on La. 70. She said DOTD would be looking at all options for funding, including from Texas Brine.

LeBas and other officials said monitoring of the highway does not show there are any problems currently.