Judge grants preliminary OK in sinkhole settlement

A federal judge in New Orleans granted preliminary approval Tuesday to a $48.1 million settlement between Texas Brine Co. and the plaintiffs in class-action litigation over the Bayou Corne-area sinkhole that forced the ongoing evacuation of 350 people.

Filed midday Wednesday in U.S. District Court, the preliminary order from Judge Jay C. Zainey lays out the details of the settlement and appoints Denham Springs lawyer A. Shelby Easterly III as a special master.

Under the agreement, the special master will create the criteria for plaintiffs’ claims, review the claims and make recommendations to Zainey.

The order is just the first of several steps before the plaintiffs are paid for their claims, including a hearing before Zainey to determine if the overall settlement is fair and reasonable.

Texas Brine officials have said the settlement is conditioned on the buyout of about 90 homes and camps that the plaintiffs own or had rented.

The class action consolidated several suits filed over the sinkhole in state and federal court but more are pending, including those filed by the state, the Assumption Parish Police Jury and sheriff, and pipeline companies.

In addition to property buyouts, plaintiffs’ attorney Larry Centola has said, the settlement also includes a component for damages, such as emotional distress, stemming from the sinkhole and the evacuation.

The Bayou Corne community has been under an evacuation order for more than 20 months since the sinkhole emerged in nearby swamps sometime late on Aug. 2, 2012, or early the next day.

Scientists studying the incident for the state say the sinkhole formed after a Texas Brine-operated salt dome cavern was mined too closely to the outer face of a subterranean salt deposit known as the Napoleonville Dome.

The cavern’s supporting wall of salt had a collapse or breach that allowed surrounding rock to flow into the massive cavity. That shattered the subsurface around the salt dome and resulted in the sinkhole.

Under the settlement, all plaintiffs’ claims against Texas Brine will be dismissed and the company will admit no fault in the disaster.

The sinkhole is now nearly 30 acres in size and growing, though at a slower rate than in the past.