Senator: La. lawmakers to discuss sinkhole in February

Screen Shot of State Police video -- The Assumption parish sinkhole near Bayou Corner on Jan. 24, 2013. Show caption
Screen Shot of State Police video -- The Assumption parish sinkhole near Bayou Corner on Jan. 24, 2013.

“There has got to be funding made available to continue monitoring all the activity on the rest of the dome to make sure nothing like this happens again.” Martin “Marty” Triche,   Police Jury president

The Louisiana Senate and House Natural Resources committees plan to hold a joint meeting in mid-February to assess the northern Assumption Parish sinkhole emergency and the effects it is having on surrounding communities, two legislators said Friday.

State Sen. Rick Ward III, D-Maringouin, vice chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said officials from the state Department of Natural Resources and other agencies involved in the sinkhole response, as well as Texas Brine Co. LLC, would be invited to the hearing.

“We’ll hear testimony from different state departments, and I am sure questions will be asked of them, what they have done so far, what’s coming in the future,” Ward said.

“I am sure there will be time for public comments. Members of the public will be able to voice their concerns and things like that,” Ward added.

DNR’s Office of Conservation, which regulates salt cavern operators, and other agencies have been responding to the sinkhole problems along with Houston-based Texas Brine, but drawing criticism for what some perceive as a slow and sometimes halting pace toward recovery.

The 8.5-acre sinkhole, which scientists have said they suspect erupted from a failed Texas Brine salt cavern, has forced a nearly six-month-long evacuation of 150 residences in the Grand Bayou and Bayou Corne areas.

The cavern is located in the western edge of the Napoleonville Dome, a large upthrust of salt from a deep, underground bed laid down by ancient seas.

Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche said he was pleased to hear word of the planned hearing and hoped that legislators understand the serious nature of the sinkhole emergency and its effect on residents so funding continues to be provided for the ongoing response and for the long term.

“There has got to be funding made available to continue monitoring all the activity on the rest of the dome to make sure nothing like this happens again,” Triche said.

Texas Brine is one of seven cavern operators on the 1- by 3-mile dome. The largest is Dow Chemical, which uses the dome for feedstock storage and brine production for plants in Plaquemine and Hahnville.

Ward and other legislators, however, gave somewhat differing indications Friday about where the hearing would be held.

Ward said the joint hearing, which he said has been discussed for months, would likely convene at the State Capitol as discussed with Senate Natural Resources Committee chairman, Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield.

But Ward later said, when informed parish officials suggested it may still be held in the parish, that legislators had also previously discussed having the joint meeting in the parish. He said he would be happy either way, but had not heard differently from Long.

State Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, said he has spoken with Long and said the meeting would be at the Assumption Community Center in Napoleonville.

The two legislators and state Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, offered differing rationales for either location. Holding it at the Capitol, a central location, would mean more lawmakers would likely be on hand to hear about the sinkhole situation, Ward and St. Germain said.

Assumption Parish’s community center would be more convenient for residents directly affected by the sinkhole to attend and hear what is said, Harrison said.

An attempt to reach Long through his cellphone was not successful by late Friday.

The announcement that the joint session would be held came two days after the Assumption Parish Police Jury invited the committees to meet in Pierre Part at the urging of Harrison, who is a member of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.

Ward said talks on holding the joint hearing had already been going on before the police jurors’ vote this week.

“We’re in agreement that one needs to be had,” Ward said. “It’s probably going to be sometime in middle to late February, but we are working on that and looking forward to having it.”

Harrison said he has been asking for a hearing for several months, adding that it was likely to convene the week before Mardi Gras, which is on Feb. 12, or the week after.

Harrison said he heard the emotional responses of evacuees who spoke at the Police Jury meeting Wednesday and wants to see some sort of timeline in place for an end to the situation.

Gulf Coast salt domes, which have tended to collect deposits of oil and gas on their sides and top, played an important role in the region’s early oil and gas development.

At the turn of the prior century, for example, old-time gushers such as the Jennings Field in Louisiana and Spindletop in Beaumont, Texas, were developed over, and later, around the edges of salt domes.

In following decades, the domes have been used for hydrocarbon storage and mined for their salt for the petrochemical industry, as Texas Brine does from the Napoleonville Dome. At present, the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve is kept in hollowed salt domes along the Gulf Coast.