Earlier this spring, residents of a rural community in Louisiana's Assumption Parish noticed mysterious bubbles rising to the surface in some bayous. Shortly thereafter, a series of small earthquakes shook the area, prompting state officials to investigate. But in Early August, the ground suddenly opened up and gave way — swallowing up acres of swamp forest. In its place there is now a gaping sinkhole filled with water, underground brines, oil, and natural gas. But this was no natural disaster, say geologists. It was the consequence of mining activities conducted by the oil and gas service company, Texas Brine.
Located about 45 miles south of Baton rouge, the Bayou Corne Sinkhole has grown to eight acres in size. In the weeks following the collapse, officials determined that an unstable and collapsing salt cavern was responsible — what prompted Texas Brine to blame seismic activity on the sinkhole.
But as Mike Ludwig from Truthout reports, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has determined that it was the collapse of the cavern that caused the tremors felt in the neighborhood, and not the other way around — what was likely brought about by extensive mining.
On August 3, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a statewide emergency, and local officials in Assumption ordered the mandatory evacuation of about 300 residents of more than 150 homes located about a half-mile from the sinkhole. Four months later, officials continue to tell residents that they do not know when they will be able to return home. A few have chosen to ignore the order and have stayed in their homes, but the neighborhood is now quiet and nearly vacant. Across the road from the residential community, a parking lot near a small boat launch ramp has been converted to a command post for state police and emergency responders.
"This place is no longer fit for human habitation, and will forever be," shouted one frustrated evacuee at a recent community meeting in Assumption.
The Bayou Corne sinkhole is an unprecedented environmental disaster. Geologists say they have never dealt with anything quite like it before, but the sinkhole has made few headlines beyond the local media. No news may be good news for Texas Brine, a Houston-based drilling and storage firm that for years milked an underground salt cavern on the edge of large salt formation deep below the sinkhole area. From oil and gas drilling, to making chloride and other chemicals needed for plastics and chemical processing, the salty brine produced by such wells is the lifeblood of the petrochemical industry.
Geologists and state officials now believe that Texas Brine's production cavern below Bayou Corne collapsed from the side and filled with rock, oil and gas from deposits around the salt formation. The pressure in the cavern was too great and caused a "frack out." Like Mother Nature's own version of the controversial oil and gas drilling technique known as "fracking," brine and other liquids were forced vertically out of the salt cavern, fracturing rock toward the surface and causing the ground to give way.
"In the oil field, you've heard of hydraulic fracturing; that's what they're using to develop gas and oil wells around the country ..."What is a frack-out is, is when you get the pressure too high and instead fracturing where you want, it fractures all the way to the surface," said Gary Hecox, a geologist with the Shaw Environmental Group, at a recent community meeting in Assumption Parish. Texas Brine brought in the Shaw group to help mitigate the sinkhole.
Cleanup work has started, but the company has failed to keep oil and other pollutants from contaminating nearby waterways. Earlier this month, Louisiana Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh fined Texas Brine $100,000 for failing to meet several deadlines for the cleanup effort.
And things appear to be going from bad to worse. A recent WWL Radio report indicated that the sinkhole may potentially impact larger areas, and that it may have to become a "sacrifice zone." In addition, hydrogen sulfide continues to escape from its depths.
All images via Louisiana Environmental Action Network.