Sinkhole settlement offer accepted by some evacuees

Texas Brine Co. officials said Friday that out-of-court settlement offers have been accepted so far by about one-third of the evacuated Bayou Corne residents offered such deals.

The Houston-based company and willing residents face a 5:30 p.m. Monday court-imposed deadline to reach buyout deals over Texas Brine’s salt dome cavern failure last year and the resulting sinkhole that has forced a continuing evacuation of about 350 people in the Assumption Parish community since Aug. 3.

Sonny Cranch, Texas Brine spokesman, said offers have been prepared and received by 91 people, and 30 have accepted them. More deals could be struck during the weekend, he said.

“We’re going to be working all weekend until 5:30 (p.m.) Monday,” he said.

Some residents who accepted offers declined to speak about them this week.

But Lorna Prudhomme, 70, an evacuated Bayou Corne resident and a retired Baton Rouge-area real estate agent, said her agreement left several key details unsettled, such as when to vacate and what items can go.

“This offer is basically just a number,” she wrote in an email. “The main ingredient missing from this transaction is a good Realtor to advise both the Seller (Residents) and the Buyer (Texas Brine) of normal expectations.”

Prudhomme declined to disclose what she has been offered. She said she and her husband felt the appraisal for their home is fair but they are not entirely pleased with the total offer, which includes additional money over the appraised value.

Cranch said the additional money is designed to settle any other claims.

Prudhomme said the ages of her and her husband — he is 76 — and their slipping health this past year have led them to try to reach an agreement anyway.

“There are many older residents who do not have the time to be involved in a feisty, lengthy court battle as time is not on their side,” she wrote.

“We are in this group.”

Cranch said the company is trying to reach agreements first, but still had details to work out as in any sale closing.

The settlement negotiations have been conducted among 103 residents under evacuation orders and without legal representation. More than a dozen lawsuits have been filed so far in state and federal court in regard to the sinkhole.

U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey imposed the Monday settlement deadline for those residents who are class members of a consolidated class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in New Orleans against Texas Brine and other companies.

After Monday, Texas Brine cannot directly negotiate with residents, but the residents will need to have legal representation. Class members have until July 11 to mail requests to opt out of the suit, Zainey ruled. A key bellwether trial is set for April 14, 2014.

The company’s drive to reach settlements comes as the sinkhole — now a 22.4-acre opening underneath floodwaters inside containment levees surrounding a 82-acre swath of swamp — emitted more tremors and another burp about 10 p.m. Thursday

John Boudreaux, director of the parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said his office received calls late Thursday night about a petroleum odor that signaled the onset of burp activity. Increasing tremors this week also pointed to a possible burp.

He said an emulsified mix of crude oil and debris that sometimes comes up with burps also surfaced in the sinkhole. Parish video shows it is hemmed in by retardant boom.

A newly released depth survey shows the hole itself has grown by 3.1 acres since the last survey in mid-May.

This new survey was taken three days after containment levees south of the sinkhole sunk and were overtopped with rising swamp water that followed heavy rainstorms in early June. The levee has since been patched, though plans are being made to relocate the structure.

The agreed-upon edge of the submerged hole lies at a depth of 10 feet beneath the surface of the water, but a shallower subsidence area surrounding the hole also has grown since May, making the combined sinkhole area 49 acres in size, the new survey shows.

In another development, Texas Brine plans to demonstrate at 9 a.m. Saturday at Sportsman’s Landing, 1491 La. 70 South, a cone penetrometer test. It measures gas levels in the shallow soils under the community, parish officials said.

One of the side effects of the Texas Brine cavern failure has been the release of oil and gas from deep formations related to the massive underground salt deposit named the Napoleonville Dome.

Since the first weeks after the sinkhole emerged, Texas Brine has paid residents under the evacuation order a total of $5.5 million in weekly assistance payments, or about $40,250 per residence, whether or not people have moved out, company officials said this week.

The company agreed to evacuation assistance in the event of a sinkhole when the state permitted the cavern in 1982.

The company has been under pressure from Gov. Bobby Jindal and others to buy out residents who want to leave.

One of them, Lindsey Blanchard, 61, an evacuated Bayou Corne resident building a new house in Pierre Part, said he has gone through six offers and counter-offers with Texas Brine. He or his wife plan to speak with the company again Saturday.

Blanchard said he feels the buyout negotiation process has been driven by insurers and the bottom line, causing the proceedings to be dragged out in order to wear claimants down.

“Does that make any sense to you? Why offer me something so low and I tell them what I want and they take four or five baby steps to get to what they’re going to give me?” Blanchard asked. “A lot of people are frustrated with that. Not just me.”

He said the initial offer for his two-story house was $258,000, which he said was very far from what he was seeking.

Blanchard’s vacated house recently caught fire, but Texas Brine officials have said appraisals would be based on values before the sinkhole or bayou bubbles appeared last year.

On the Internet:

June 21, 2013 Assumption Sinkhole Burp Event Video