Honoré: Feds need to get more involved in sinkhole emergency

Russel Honoré, the Army general who stepped in during the early, chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, now is a civilian trying to raise the profile of the Bayou Corne sinkhole disaster that began nearly a year ago.

Honoré, who retired with the rank of lieutenant general as commander of the U.S. 1st Army in 2008, questions why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice have not gotten more involved, pointing to heavy federal involvement after Katrina and the 2010 BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana.

Honoré said the sinkhole disaster would have been handled differently had it occurred near a major East Coast city or been the result of a tornado and not man-made.

“If this was happening outside the city of Boston, OK, the company would not be the principal actor. The federal government would be. That’s the bottom line,” he said in an interview Friday.

Honoré added that the sinkhole, in combination with back-to-back industrial incidents in Ascension Parish last month, a salt dome incident at Lake Peigneur in the early 1980s and a chemical spill last year on the Pearl River have led him to question how the state regulates industry.

“Wait a minute. Are we really making sure these companies are doing what they are supposed to do?” is a question he said he has been asking himself.

Honoré, 65, who keeps occupied as a consultant and public speaker and who also says he has “no intention” of running for governor of Louisiana in 2015, has no formal authority to force action, but said he is trying to use his power as citizen after being asked for help by residents with property in the vicinity of the sinkhole.

“I’m here because I am concerned about our people. I’ve seen us do this a lot better,” he said.

Honoré said he has met twice with a group of Bayou Corne residents to gather information to bring to state leaders and others.

“I guess a lot of what I am hearing is people still kind of don’t have confidence that what they are being told is the full information,” Honoré said.

Honoré said he fears the sinkhole disaster, now wrapped up in the courts, could drag on for years.

Mike Schaff, 63, a Bayou Corne resident who moderated a Wednesday meeting of about 50 to 60 people with Honoré at the Assumption Parish Library in Pierre Part, said the general helped people who are depressed about feeling they cannot do anything about their predicament.

“I really don’t know what he can do to help. I can tell you that his presence there has lifted a lot of spirits,” Schaff said.

The sinkhole was discovered Aug. 3 after the suspected underground failure of a Texas Brine Co. salt dome cavern.

Faced with the growing 22-acre sinkhole and subterranean gas released from the failure deep underground, residents in about 150 homes in the swampland community in Assumption Parish have been under evacuation orders for 11 months and counting.

Some have evacuated, but others have remained and say they do not want to leave. Others have recently taken buyouts from Texas Brine, while some are pursuing damages in state or federal courts.

The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, which regulates salt dome operations, is the lead agency in the sinkhole response. Officials defended its actions Friday, both in the response and its regulation of industry.

Officials asserted Honoré has not contacted the Office of Conservation, despite a previous invitation previously to discuss any suggestions he might have for the response.

“The many state agencies involved in the response to the situation at Bayou Corne share the concern for the people of the Bayou Corne community and surrounding area,” said Patrick Courreges, DNR spokesman.

“Getting them back to normal and holding Texas Brine accountable is our top priority.”

Courreges said a variety of state and federal agencies are involved in the response, including EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy. He said they are working in a coordinated response and keeping people informed.

A community meeting, for example, is planned July 16 while websites are maintained with reports on the incident, legislative hearings have been held and the Office of Conservation has responded to more than 200 direct emails.

He added that during a natural disaster, the government is the primary responder because no company can be held responsible. In this case, Texas Brine is the responsible party.

Courreges said DNR and other agencies also area maintaining a “sense of urgency” because residents are out of their homes but it must be balanced with “the need to ensure safety in all phases of the operation” and to make sure the correct actions are taken for the future.

Honoré said his meetings with residents have raised a number of several concerns, including:

Residents smell hydrocarbons coming from the sinkhole but state environmental officials continue to say the emissions are not leaving the company site at harmful levels, though he worries long-term health impacts are possible.

Residents out of their homes and under months of stress may be exhibiting some of the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and should have access to counseling.

Texas Brine is mining salt from at least one of its caverns on its site near the sinkhole and state regulators have not offered conclusive evidence that doing so is safe.

Dennis Landry, a boat launch and vacation cabin owner in Bayou Corne who was at the meeting Wednesday, questioned Honoré’s skepticism of the safety of the area’s air quality. Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality officials have consistently said the emissions from the hole do not pose a health risk for residents.

“You’ve got to have some faith in DEQ, and they’ve been here every day, and they’re telling us they have never gotten a bad reading, and Honoré and this group don’t buy it,” Landry said.

Texas Brine officials said that while they respect Honoré’s service to the nation and unselfish concern for Bayou Corne residents, the issues he is raising already are being addressed by state and parish entities and the company.