Sinkhole shows stabilizing; officials not ready to give all clear
BAYOU CORNE — Pat and Jim Parks finally have their new beginning within sight.
Two years after the sinkhole opened up in the swamps southeast of their waterside home in Bayou Corne, the Parks family plans to start over, purchasing a lot on a small pond in Walker.
The only holdup is a settlement from a federal class-action lawsuit, money they need to build a new house.
For Jim Parks, 79, who retired to Bayou Corne with his wife after spending most of their lives in Baton Rouge, the time cannot pass soon enough.
They have spent the two-year hiatus from Bayou Corne in a cramped recreational vehicle parked behind their church in Pierre Part. It’s cooped up a man who would much rather be carving in his wood shop and has dampened family holidays once spent on the Parkses’ spacious grounds.
“We’ve given up our Christmases. We’ve given up our New Year’s. We’ve given up all of our holidays, and this is going to be for the third time, and we were hoping we would be able to build our house and have at least the third year, Christmas with our family, like we’ve always had,” Jim Parks said.
What is now a 32-acre, lake-like sinkhole was first discovered two years ago Sunday, swallowing about an acre of cypress trees. In the intervening years, it has become increasingly clear the small residential community on Bayou Corne will never be the same. Once a mix of 350 camp owners, retirees and young families, it’s a much quieter place these days.
Far fewer visible signs of a community life remain. While people still fish the bayous, gone are the golf carts and walkers out on the streets. In spots, high grass grows on uncut yards.
A wave of buyouts last year by Texas Brine Co., the company some scientists blame for the sinkhole, has led to the departure of 66 property owners.
The Parks are among the next wave planning to leave through the class-action. A fairness hearing has been set for 10 a.m. Aug. 13 before U.S. Judge Jay C. Zainey in New Orleans. He will hear any objections to the $48.2 million settlement with Texas Brine.
Lawrence J. Centola III, one of the lead plaintiffs’ attorneys, said that if Zainey grants final approval — there have been no objections filed — that would set the stage for money to flow by the end of the year.
“The settlement is going as expected, and the overwhelming majority of people are participating in the settlement. We’ve got very few opt-outs,” Centola said. “We’re encouraged we’ll get people money by December.”
Payment will be a mixed blessing for Jim Parks and his wife, who are losing the place they loved.
“Unless a person has lived on the bayou, then they cannot understand what we’re giving up,” he said.
At the same time, some residents have not taken the direct Texas Brine buyouts and have opted out of the class action, which also requires people to leave their properties. These homeowners — who own an estimated 11 to 15 properties — are pursuing general damages claims against Texas Brine but want to stay.
Bob Deaton, who splits time between homes in Bayou Corne and Baton Rouge, said he and the owners of eight other homes on the bayou side of Sportsman Drive in Bayou Corne are in that number.
The subdivision south of La. 70 South has some of the largest pockets of methane gas, which scientists believe was released by the formation of the sinkhole. Deaton, 67, lives next to a bought-out home that has a vent well in its yard. The well is designed to remove methane, which otherwise could accumulate to dangerous — potentially explosive — levels under home slabs and in closets.
Deaton said he thinks the gas threat is low and that he is more likely to be killed driving back and forth to Baton Rouge.
“It boils down to the attitude toward risk,” Deaton said.
He said he will be fine with living in Bayou Corne with just a few residents around, especially if Texas Brine tears down vacant homes. Texas Brine officials would not say what their plans are with the property the company is buying.
But many residents are more cautious than Deaton.
Vickie Guilbeau, 64, said she is not so sure everything is over with the sinkhole.
“I’ve got a feeling Bayou Corne is going to be off the map one of these days,” said Guilbeau, who has homes in both Bayou Corne and Port Allen with her husband, Preston. They are waiting on the class-action settlement and plan to move to Mississippi.
Just 12 hours after the sinkhole announced itself with a foul diesel smell on the morning of Aug. 3, 2012, Assumption Parish Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche ordered a mandatory evacuation for the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou communities.
Though the sinkhole was not fully understood at the time, scientists now believe a Texas Brine Co.-operated salt mining operation in what is called the Napoleonville Dome was mined too closely over several years to the outer face of that massive column of salt known as a salt dome. Some kind of breach formed in the underground cavern, which was carved by pumping fresh water into the salt.
The cavern breach, which probably happened many months before the sinkhole appeared, allowed surrounding rock to begin to flow into the cavern, which is taller than all but the highest skyscrapers in the world. The resulting underground shifting of rock over the following months unleashed the methane and eventually created the sinkhole.
Reflecting state officials’ early fears that the slurry hole of muck and partially swallowed cypress trees could quickly expand and take out homes, gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas storage caverns, Triche didn’t mince his words.
“We’re here to let people know the significant risk involved,” he said, standing on the bed of a pickup during an impromptu community meeting in a parking lot. He said the risk was not likely, but not impossible.
“So we want everybody to know y’all may not be safe.”
While those worst fears have subsided — underground caverns in the Napoleonville Dome where liquefied natural gas are stored have resumed operations and damaged pipelines have been rerouted — that evacuation order has remained in place.
John Boudreaux, director of the parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said he could see the order lifted within the next year as removal efforts seem to be diminishing gas levels. But he, too, is cautious and wants to see more testing.
The gas, which is odorless and invisible, is still feeding roughly 80 bubble sites, Boudreaux said.
Denis O’Carroll, a University of Western Ontario environmental engineering professor who served on a special state commission that looked at the sinkhole gas threat, said gas removal is difficult and slow. As gas pressures decrease, the rate of gas removal also will slow down.
“If it was my home, I would be concerned for sure. If you’ve got methane coming up into your house, you don’t know where it’s accumulating,” he said.
The response to sinkhole and the gas has led to installation of an array of wells and other devices crisscrossed through the swamp to remove gas and monitor gas pressure, water quality, seismic activity and subsidence. Many homes in Bayou Corne also are monitored for gas levels.
So far, the state of Louisiana has spent $14 million on the response, a state Division of Administration spokeswoman said. The parish Police Jury has spent more than $881,000, and the sheriff also shelled out several hundred thousand dollars, but they are gradually being reimbursed by Texas Brine.
Texas Brine insurers have spent nearly $80.3 million, including on their own shares of the direct buyouts, the class-action settlement and other costs, according to estimates in recent state court filings. Texas Brine has kicked in additional money as well, though a total figure was not available. Among those costs are Texas Brine’s share of $10.4 million in $875 weekly evacuation assistance payments to residents paid over nearly two years, whether people moved out or not.
Texas Brine officials said they are financially prepared to see through the response. Vent wells have removed 34 million cubic feet of gas, they said, and the sinkhole is moving toward stability while the broader salt dome also appears to be stable.
“Over the past two years, significant progress has been made in response to the Bayou Corne sinkhole incident,” Texas Brine said in a statement. “We understand the frustration felt by many residents during this time, and we are sympathetic to their concerns and the impact this event has had on their lives.”
State and parish officials agreed the sinkhole has grown more slowly this past year and has trended toward greater stability, without trademark burps of gas and oil or tree swallowing slough-ins in many months to a year. Spikes of underground tremors have been more spread out, though a round last week shut down response operations on the sinkhole.
But the sinkhole also has been mercurial, defying past predictions. State and parish officials said they are not ready to declare those trends indicate more stability exists or that threats to other salt dome caverns have been definitively eliminated.
“We have not seen anything indicative of a structural threat, but we’re watching,” said Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.
He said the sinkhole appears to be within projections showing it will not, once it finally stops growing, reach the residential community, La. 70 or the Bayou Corne waterway.
Courreges said a key report on sinkhole stability is expected from the members of the special state commission soon, but the state has no plans to fill in the sinkhole because of the instability that could be created in fractured rock underneath the lake.
“The expectation is that as the subsurface continues to stabilize, the sinkhole would be expected to settle into a lake-like feature, growing shallower over time,” he said.
Beset by uncertainty, many are not waiting around to find out.
Kitty Vice, 71, who has a new home in Donaldsonville, was packing up last week. Vice’s husband of 49 years died in June after an extended illness. Although they took a voluntary buyout in October, Vice has struggled to remove a lifetime of things amid her more personal loss. Texas Brine granted her repeated extensions to move out.
“Everything has a memory,” said Vice, who refers to her husband, Billy, in the present tense and still speaks of “us” and “we.”
Bayou Corne was a special place for them as a young couple and later their family, she said, and they moved there from Donaldsonville in 1999.
Vice said she was thankful for Texas Brine’s consideration and that her new home in Donaldsonville is close to old friends.
“We’ve been blessed,” she said.