State suing Texas Brine over Bayou Corne sinkhole
MELINDA DESLATTE,Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The state of Louisiana sued Texas Brine LLC on Friday for the environmental damage and massive sinkhole that officials say was caused by the collapse of a salt dome cavern operated by the company.
Gov. Bobby Jindal and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell announced the lawsuit a day ahead of the one-year anniversary for when the sinkhole was discovered in a swampy area of Assumption Parish about 40 miles south of Baton Rouge.
An area around Bayou Corne dissolved into liquefied muck overnight on Aug. 3, 2012. The sinkhole has since grown to 24 acres, and 350 residents in the tiny community have no end in sight to their evacuation order because the hole continues to widen.
"We have already pushed for buyouts for affected residents and are undertaking a thorough review of all of Texas Brine's permits in our state. This suit is just the next step in making sure Texas Brine does the right thing and properly addresses the mess it's caused," Jindal said in a statement.
The attorney general's office filed the lawsuit in state district court in Assumption Parish, seeking reimbursement for state response costs, along with civil penalties and money to pay for mitigation of wetlands damage.
Also named as a defendant was Occidental Chemical Corp., a New York-based company from whom Texas Brine leased the site.
"These response efforts have cost the state considerable amounts of money, due, in no small part, to (Texas Brine's) decision to not immediately, consistently and fully assume responsibility for the sinkhole response," the lawsuit says.
The state has spent at least $12 million responding to the disaster so far, according to Patrick Courreges, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources. He said Texas Brine hasn't reimbursed the state for any of its costs.
Houston-based Texas Brine was drilling on the edge of a salt dome — a large, naturally occurring underground salt deposit — to create a cavern to extract brine used in petrochemical refining. Scientists say the underground storage cavern was being mined too close to the edge of the salt dome and caused the sinkhole.
"The conduct and operations of the defendants resulted in the brine mining of the salt cavern to the point that the cavern became structurally unstable, thereby causing the collapse of the cavern and damage to Louisiana's waters, natural resources and the state's Coastal Zone," the lawsuit says.
The cavern failure released oil and natural gas, which authorities are continuing to monitor for safety concerns. Concentrations of explosive gas have been found under some houses.
Sixty-three homeowners of 150 who live in the evacuation area have taken buyouts from Texas Brine. Others want to stay put, and some people are still negotiating with the company.
"We want to be bought out. We don't think that it's safe at all over there anymore. I wouldn't want to take the chance. We have so many gas leaks under people's homes. It's crazy," said Bayou Corne resident Vickie Guilbeau.
Guilbeau, 63, said she and her husband built their two-story dream home in Bayou Corne, with a porch overlooking cypress trees and easy access to all-day fishing. They had lived there for 22 years before the evacuation.
"I could cry like a baby every time I go over there, when I see all of the work that we've done ourselves," she said Friday. "I always say our home went down the sinkhole, because it's not worth a penny anymore."
Texas Brine has been providing weekly housing subsidies to residents to help them cope with the costs of their displacement.
"This was an unfortunate, totally unexpected incident, and we truly regret what the Bayou Corne community has had to endure over the past year," Texas Brine said in a statement. "We know there is frustration in the community, and we are doing everything we can to address their concerns."
Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said the company will review the lawsuit "and respond appropriately."
If there's any good news to be found, Courreges said the sinkhole is growing away from residences and the main road in the area, rather than seeping closer to homes. But he said there's no estimate on when the growth might stop and the area might stabilize.
Texas Brine said it expects "initial containment" of the site to be finished by later this month.
"Although the response effort hasn't been perfect, significant progress has been made, and we look forward to the day when the residents of Bayou Corne can return to their home and resume their normal lifestyle," the company said in its statement.