Sinkhole fears spur La. 70 realignment plans

Assumption residents divided on where to build detour routes if La. 70 closed

In Assumption Parish, you “make the round,” as people here say, only if you must.

The “round” is the long, long way between Pierre Part and Napoleonville when La. 70 is closed in the wrong spot.

Drivers can spend an hour and a half or more heading north through White Castle and Bayou Pigeon or south through Morgan City to travel between the two communities, just 19 miles apart through La. 70.

The more than year-old, growing sinkhole just south of La. 70 in the Bayou Corne area has raised worries about subsidence that could cut off La. 70 in just the wrong place. Commuters and school buses would be forced to make the time-consuming round, some fear.

School Board member Jessica Ourso, who represents the Pierre Part area, said the thought of what could happen on La. 70 and of school children passing the sinkhole daily gives her pause.

“I cringe every time I pass there, I kid you not,” she said.

In response, the state Department of Transportation and Development is in the early stages of a two-tiered planning process for a northern alternative: a temporary detour that could be built quickly in the event of a sudden failure, and then a more-permanent bypass.

The reception to the proposals — unveiled last month at a DOTD community meeting attended by 33 residents — has been divided.

Some, like Ourso, want a proposed four-mile-long bypass farthest from the sinkhole built right away, while others, including business people on La. 70, are wary of that route and favor a shorter temporary detour.

“We are examining both options because we do not know what, if any, impacts there will be from the sinkhole to infrastructure in the area,” Dustin Annison, DOTD spokesman, said in an email.

No cost estimates or time lines are yet available, he said. Annison added that any new route “would only be built if it were necessary to close La. 70.”

The northern edge of the sinkhole is 1,100 feet from the highway, parish officials said, and the sinkhole has been growing southward, away from La. 70.

Annison said ongoing monitoring of La. 70 and its bridges shows they are not subsiding.

But sitting in a front-porch chair last week at his home in Pierre Part off La. 70, Herman Mabile, 75, said DOTD needs to build the longer route soon.

“You’re getting away from all the mess right here,” Mabile said, pointing to the sinkhole on a map with the proposed routes.

“That mess right there, you can’t control it. There’s no way they can control that hole right there.”

Known as Alignment 1, the route Mabile prefers would tie La. 70 to La. 69 near its intersection with La. 996 along a looping path through the swamp. The bypass would start from a point on La. 70 west of the Bayou Corne area.

But at Action Industries on La. 70 past Bayou Corne, Alternative 1 and two other two-mile-long bypass routes drew skepticism.

Some workers at the facility, which houses several businesses under one roof, would have to take the longer detour to work every day.

Roy LeBlanc Jr., manager of Shelby Gaudet Contractor Inc., said the company’s bread and butter is work for salt dome operators along La. 70. Alignment 1 would be a problem, he said.

“If you couldn’t pass there (La. 70), it would be difficult,” he said.

LeBlanc said he prefers the shorter detour route, if anything, and doubts Alignment 1 would be built because, he said, DOTD does not have the funding.

“I don’t see it happening,” he said.

Two one-mile-long detour routes are proposed and each detour would veer just north off La. 70 near Gumbo Street in the Bayou Corne area and parallel the highway until meeting La. 69.

Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche said the temporary detour seems to be the most practical way to keep traffic flowing, but he has heard constituent concerns about the permanent routes cutting off Bayou Corne and businesses.

“I am kind of like them (DOTD officials), sitting, looking and evaluating all the options,” he said.

Annison said DOTD is spending $735,000 for the ongoing feasibility study, which is expected to be finished later this month. DOTD also has a $400,000 environmental analysis under way that should be finished in the spring.

He said the state would pursue Texas Brine Co. of Houston, the owner of the failed salt dome cavern suspected of causing the sinkhole, for construction funding if needed.

Sonny Cranch, Texas Brine spokesman, said the company is focused on containing the sinkhole and removing natural gas caught in an aquifer under the community. The company is also buying out some evacuated Bayou Corne residents. As of mid-Friday, 29 of the 64 buyout settlements reached had been closed, he said.

“The issue of the re-route is something that we will address at the appropriate time,” Cranch said.

Phil Daigle, 47, a Pierre Part native and a pharmacist who works in Baton Rouge and Gonzales, said adding even 10 minutes to his commute is significant. He said the Alignment 1 bypass is not something he would favor, but maybe the detour.

Still, Daigle, whose brother evacuated from Bayou Corne, said video of the sinkhole swallowing cypress trees last month in less than a minute “hit home.”

“The video made me look at it (the sinkhole) differently, definitely differently,” he said. “Seeing them trees being sucked under, it just makes me look at it, you know, how far can it go.”