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Louisiana sinkhole shatters calm, prompts buyouts on the bayou

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On the bayou: Tim Brown steers his boat on Bayou Corne, along with his dog, Fritz. A 14-acre sinkhole threatens to destroy the calm in this Louisiana community. Many residents are seeking buyouts, making the neighborhood just one of many across the country seeking to flee environmental hazards. Brown is among residents who plan to stay.

Ronnie Greene/Center for Public Integrity

BELLE ROSE, La. — Tim Brown eases his john boat from his back yard dock into his daily therapy: The Bayou Corne that courses through this patch of southern Louisiana like a lifeline. Brown powers past the Tupelo Gum, Cypress Moss and Swamp Maple trees that drape the bayou in a frame, and steers to the spot where he reels catfish and collects thoughts.

“If I had to actually leave this place and go back to a house on dry land, I’d probably be dead in two years,” says Brown, 65 and retiring next year. “I guess you can say it’s a totally different life out here.”

But now that life, for Brown and 350 other residents in a neighborhood with “Crawfish Crossing” signs and roads named Gumbo, Jambalaya and Crawfish Stew Street, has been shattered by discovery of a 14-acre sinkhole that fractured the community’s calm and may bury its dreams.

The sinkhole, triggered by a collapsed cavern operated by salt mining operator Texas Brine Company LLC, swallowed trees and fouled the air when it appeared August 3. Its discovery sent the Bayou Corne community here in Belle Rose into a state of emergency: Assumption Parish and Louisiana officials ordered a still-in-effect evacuation as state officials scrambled to unearth what happened.

“Initially the concern was, that first day, you have a sinkhole … and you don’t know what caused it. All you know is a 400-by-400 section of marshland just got converted to a muddy pit. Trees were sinking into it and not coming back. It was like quicksand,” said Patrick Courreges, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.

Natural gas filtered into the aquifer, and crude oil floated to the top of the sinkhole, about a third of a mile from the nearest homes anchored on each side of Highway 70. Louisiana officials feared explosion hazards and “potentially toxic constituents of crude oil and other hydrocarbons,” though the state said continuous monitoring has detected “no hazardous concentrations.” Yet earlier this month, sampling by Texas Brine found two homes with “concentrations of natural gas below the structure foundations that were above normal background levels,” Assumption Parish officials reported.

“That is just too close to the community to take any chances with what comes next,” Courreges said.

Eight months later, what comes next roils a community so close-knit it hosts its own Mardi Gras parade: The prospect that the entire Bayou Corne neighborhood, all 150 homeowners, will be relocated and not come back; that this haven for retirees and working class Louisianans will be, symbolically, swallowed by the sinkhole.

What’s happening in Belle Rose has played out in dozens of communities threatened by environmental hazards so  dire residents feel compelled to demand that industry or government move them out. But as Bayou Corne’s experience shows, winning buyouts is never easy, and leaving is often painful. The community’s travails reveal the human cost of pollution.

“It’s been an ongoing, really to me, like a science fiction novel. You have this big hole that caves in and then it keeps growing and growing and growing,” said Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, an advocacy organization based in Baton Rouge. “Mysterious bubbles. It’s like watching the crawfish pot, bubbling the crawfish pot.”

Bayou Corne “is really a little piece of heaven,” Orr said. “It’s a paradise to them. They could go out, be on a boat, it’s absolutely beautiful. But now a lot of people think it’s ruined forever.”

Many residents have pushed for buyouts from Texas Brine. Last month, after pressure from Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and parish political leaders, Texas Brine began contacting individual homeowners to begin the process of assessing their property values and, ultimately, making offers. How much the company will pay is unknown, leaving Jindal to tell residents, during a press conference in Bayou Corne last month, that Louisiana will “make them do it again” if the first offers are too small.

“The finger is pointed at us, and we understand that, and we are going to try to make a fair offer,” Sonny Cranch, a Texas Brine spokesman, said recently while giving a visiting journalist a tour of the sinkhole on company property.

Many of those pushing for buyouts are crestfallen by the prospect of packing up from a place where they fish, hunt and occasionally encounter alligators. When school is out, visiting grandkids pop up like spring flowers, giving the community the feel of camp on the water. Since the sinkhole’s arrival, many grandchildren have stopped returning.

Other long-timers refuse to leave homes they saved a lifetime for, state of emergency be damned.

“I don’t care if I’m the only one standing here. I’ll live here as long as I can,” vows James Bergeron, a 14-year resident of Crawfish Stew Street and retired deputy sheriff and offshore crane operator. “I’m 76 years old. This is all paid for. What am I going to do, go somewhere and buy something else?

“Come on!”

As he spoke, his eyes glistened.

Across the U.S., buyouts move slowly, painfully

While the environmental hazard in Bayou Corne is new — state officials say they know of no other instance in which a cavern’s sidewall collapsed to trigger a sinkhole — the wrenching prospect of relocation is not new for many communities from Florida to California.

Residents living on the fence-line face long odds in their quest to escape. Few communities flex political power, their voices faint against big-muscled industry or slow moving government.

“The vast majority of relocations in this country have come as a result of politics,” said Lois Gibbs, executive director of Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a nonprofit based in Falls Church, Va., that works with communities seeking relief from pollution.

Gibbs knows this firsthand. More than three decades ago, she was a housewife with sick children in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y., when she learned that her supposed dream town was built atop a 21,000-ton mound of toxic chemicals. Gibbs’ push lured President Jimmy Carter to come to town and, in 1980, free some 900 families from Love Canal’s toxic dump.

Today, Gibbs and her colleagues at CHEJ have prepared a 43-page guidebook to help communities navigate the tangle of industry and government.

The guidebook includes two dozen case studies of communities that did just that, winning relocation bankrolled by government or industry. But even successful relocation bids take years, sometimes decades.

In Pensacola, Fla., Gibbs said, residents sought for a decade to free themselves from the dioxins, arsenic and heavy metals from an abandoned former wood treating facility. By 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency said it excavated 225,000 cubic yards of contaminated material — creating a mound nearly 60 feet high — and “stored it under a secure cover on-site.” Residents dubbed the site “Mount Dioxin,” and complained of cancers and respiratory disease. The community launched a letter writing campaign demanding the EPA move them out.

Four years later, in 1996, the EPA said it would relocate a third of the residents. Enraged, the blue- collar community turned up the heat. Taking in small donations from across the country, CHEJ took out a full page ad in USA Today challenging President Clinton — then running for re-election, and needing the Florida vote. The ad juxtaposed a Clinton quote — saying that children should not live near hazardous waste sites — with a picture of Pensacola children aside the wood treating plant. Advocates delivered the ad to Hillary Clinton, then in Florida stumping for her husband.

The message, Gibbs said: “Clinton, put your words and your actions together.” Soon after, the community won a full relocation. Some activists refer to Pensacola as the “Black Love Canal.”

Other fence-line fights stretch out even longer.

In Norco, La., a four-street, all-black community named Diamond won a historic relocation from Shell Oil in 2002 after decades spent enduring illnesses and sometimes-deadly plant explosions. The grassroots victory was 13 years in the making, and came five years after a St. Charles Parish jury returned a verdict in favor of Shell in a citizen lawsuit alleging the company’s chemical plant and neighboring refinery contaminated the air and sickened residents. As in Pensacola, the Diamond residents were aided by aggressive activists who helped push intransigent industry and government.

Some communities harmed by pollution never do get out.

In Tallevast, a largely black southwest Florida town founded by turpentine workers, industry and government officials discovered in 2000 that a former beryllium plant had leached a 200-acre underground plume of cancer-causing TCE and other toxins in a town of 1.5 square miles. Lockheed Martin, the property owner at the time, discovered the leaching and set out to clean it up.

Yet for three years, no one — not the county, the state nor industry — told residents what was under their feet. Tallevast homeowners unearthed the news by chance in 2003, when community leader Laura Ward noticed workers on her lawn and started asking questions.

A decade after that discovery, the company has yet to agree to a full relocation.

Ward said residents continue to press for buyouts — with no success. “I think their decision to not do the buyout and do the move, was a bad decision,” Ward said. “We felt like that eight, 10 years ago, and we still feel that way.”

Meantime, Lockheed Martin’s cleanup will unfold over decades. The company vows to “continue to invest in the environmental, health and economic needs of the community.”

In Tallevast, as in Bayou Corne, residents seeking a buyout would depart with painfully mixed feelings — leaving homes they thought would pass down the generations.

Unexplained bubbling — then the sinkhole

Trouble in Belle Rose began months before the sinkhole arrived, with residents noticing a bubbling in the bayou and smelling gas in the air. In June and July of 2012, Assumption Parish, state and federal officials began examining the unexplained bubbling in Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou.

On August 3, an area of wooded swamp in Bayou Corne began to subside, prompting state Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh to issue a Declaration of Emergency. Assumption Parish issued its own state of emergency, and Gov. Jindal did too.

By 7:30 that night, the Assumption Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness had called for a mandatory evacuation as state and federal scientists searched for answers, “uncertain of what the actual possible risks are,” the state said.

Louisiana authorities discovered that the sinkhole was caused by the collapse of a sidewall of a previously plugged cavern. “The collapse had created a pathway to the nearby groundwater aquifer and the surface for crude oil and natural gas which had been confined in a hydrocarbon-bearing layer,” wrote the state’s Courreges.

The collapse is unprecedented, he said — the “first reported failure of a brine cavern sidewall.” Caverns have collapsed before, but always from the top, he said.

The state directed Texas Brine to remove natural gas in the aquifer through vent wells, provide home methane detectors for any resident wanting them — and to pay residents under terms of the company’s permit and the Parish evacuation order.

Since then, Texas Brine has cut $875 weekly checks to all homeowners, whether the residents left or stayed back. The state’s evacuation order was mandatory — but not forced. Many residents have fled to temporary quarters, but return regularly to check on their properties as the company and state try to keep a lid on the sinkhole and monitor its environmental impact.

State officials have ordered underground 3D seismic technology to get a clearer picture of what is happening underground.

The biggest public safety concern, Courreges said, is “to get the gas out of the aquifer, and stop it from recharging the aquifer.”

“We’ve got to stop the source of it, because it’s still being fed. We’ve got to figure out the source, find some way to intercept it, stop it,” he said. “We’re looking into that 3D seismic to get some information, to get that underground picture.”

The state also intends to gain “a full understanding of the impact the collapse had on the stability of the ground surface,” Courreges said.

The sinkhole continues to stir concern. In late March, more than two dozen trees collapsed into it. And then on March 28, authorities temporarily halted work around the sinkhole after seismic monitoring detected “fluid and gas movement below the sinkhole.” More trees and a sinkhole access ramp sloughed in. On April 1 came another work stoppage amid signs of “fluid and gas movement below the sinkhole,” and water movement at its surface.

Explosion hazards are another worry. The state, working with the EPA, conducted a series of flights over the area scouring for potentially hazardous plumes. Monitoring to date has not “detected concentrations at or above surface that have reached the lower explosive limits,” Louisiana officials say. Concerned that crude oil and saltwater could spread to surface waters, the state ordered a containment berm to be built around the sinkhole.

So far, tests results by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality show “no harmful environmental releases,” the state said.

Yet for residents, the harm is right before their eyes: A community facing potential extinction.

‘Keep Out’ signs where residents frolicked

Today, homes once filled with bustle now feature “No Trespassing” or “Keep Out” signs. Along Highway 70, where giant trucks rumble past and dead armadillos occasionally dot the sideway, an insurance company’s ad has suddenly turned ironic: “Dreams can come true.”

The homes range from modest to modern, but all share a link to the water. The sinkhole’s mysterious arrival — and its murky long-term consequences — has taken a psychological toll.

“It’s just horrible,” said Wilma Subra, a Louisiana environmental chemist who has studied the area and visited recently. “This was a very close, very small community. You cannot imagine what they must be going through, day in and day out. Not knowing if you’re ever able to come back or not.”

Julie Albarado said she and her husband, drawn by a love of fishing, hunting and the water, moved to Bayou Corne in 2003. “It’s just terrible that we may have to leave,” said Albarado, who said she was diagnosed with cancer several years ago. “We don’t know where we are going.”

Nick and Brenda Romero say they dread leaving, but see no other option.

The Romeros bought their home in 1991 as a getaway retreat, and moved in fulltime in 1996. “We decided we enjoyed it so much we wanted to retire here,” said Nick. For several years, the couple drove back and forth to jobs in Baton Rouge, some 50 miles away. Nick is retired from the U.S. Postal Service, and Brenda a retired loan closing manager.

They started the community’s annual Mardi Gras parade, replete with live music, beads and hearty food. Their house connects with a vein of canal that leads into the bayou, and their yard features an orange tree that spouts so much fruit they share it with neighbors.

In summer, a cluster of their 10 grandchildren came to visit, with fishing on the bayou, and an occasional encounter with gators.

“Our grandkids loved coming here. It was one experience they never experienced anywhere else,” Nick Romero said. “We don’t have that anymore. Our grandkids can’t come out here anymore.”

Brenda, battling breast cancer, has developed a second career as an artist, often using wildlife as her muse. “To be on the water, peacefully on the water … We feel it would be impossible to find another place like this,” she said. “This is where we wanted to be for the rest of my life.”

Her husband worries about what Texas Brine will offer. “I didn’t and she didn’t cause this,” said Nick Romero. “We still have a mortgage on this. I’m retired with a mortgage.”

Karen St. Germain, the Louisiana state representative for the area, said she understands the residents’ anxiety. “You have taken a piece of their life that they can’t get back,” St. Germain, a Democrat, said on a steamy afternoon last month, just before Gov. Jindal swooped in on a helicopter visit. “I grew up on the water. It’s our sense of calmness.”

The sinkhole threatens to destroy that calm. St. Germain said she is keeping close tabs on how Texas Brine addresses the situation. The company, she said, didn’t initially move quickly to permanently relocate residents. “Not till they got pushed,” she said.

As he landed in Bayou Corne, Jindal shook hands with residents and heard their stories. “For the people that want to leave, there should be that option,” the governor told residents clustered around him. “But it shouldn’t be mandatory.”

Jindal then huddled inside with dozens of residents, emerging later to address the community and press, flanked by Assumption Parish and state officials. Jindal had drawn some criticism for not coming to Bayou Corne sooner — the press conference was his first visit since the sinkhole’s emergence — but he told residents he has been on their side from the start.

“We will hold Texas Brine accountable,” he said. “We’re going to make sure they’re responsible for cleaning up the mess they have caused.”

He cautioned that solutions will not come quickly. “This is a marathon.”

Jindal said Texas Brine has “missed many commitments and deadlines they made to the state. We said, ‘Enough is enough.’ ” The state, he said, will closely follow the company’s offer of buyouts, which could potentially begin coming later this month.

“The real proof will be in whether residents are actually accepting their offers,” Jindal said.

Before the sinkhole, “For Sale” signs were scarce in Bayou Corne. Over the last year, just three properties had been sold, a lawyer for Texas Brine told homeowners at a town hall meeting several hours after the governor’s visit.

Cranch, the Texas Brine spokesman, said the company has moved to address the environmental damage in the community while responding to citizen lawsuits already filed. “We have tried and made a good faith effort to respond as quickly as we possibly could” to the demands of the state, Cranch said. “We were faced with an awful lot of issues.”

Texas Brine’s website includes regular bulletins. “It’s been a big hardship on a lot of these people. Truly it has, and we recognize that,” Cranch said.

Four citizen lawsuits have been consolidated into one case in federal court. A fifth case moves ahead in state court, and more are likely. Environmental activist Erin Brockovich, working with Los Angeles attorneys, came to town in March to meet with homeowners who contacted her after the sinkhole surfaced.

Under a buyout process approved in court, Texas Brine is first contacting residents not represented by lawyers. Getting to that point has taken time, Cranch said, with the myriad environmental and legal issues triggered by the cavern collapse. Another question Texas Brine has grappled with, he said: “What to do with people who stay?”

Back on the bayou

Tim Brown is among them. A lab technician for a chemical plant, he and his wife Kathryn have lived on the bayou for 14 years, hosting crawfish boils and feeling securely at home.

“I’ve always wanted to be on the water,” said Brown, originally from French Lick, Indiana. “We’ve got too much invested in our home to try to move. … Once you live on the water, you don’t want to leave.”

“The fishing is still good,” said his wife. Indeed, Tim Brown said. He caught some catfish that day.

The Browns say they confront the catastrophe with a sense of perspective built from overcoming hardships. Kathryn’s mother and brother lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina. One of their daughters has had breast cancer. Tim Brown underwent heart surgery and a series of knee surgeries in recent years.

Yet they bring a dash of Cajun personality to the chaos. Each Christmas, the Browns decorate their lawn with three giant alligators. In March, the display remained in their front yard — with sinkhole related additions. “Texas Brine Sinkhole — Stink Hole,” says one sign. “We’re having a little fun with it,” Tim Brown said. “And the Texas Brine people thought it was funny.”

Soon, he is back on the water.

“Money’s not everything,” Brown said, recalling the day he encountered beavers, eagles and otters. Giant signs on the water warn of a natural gas pipeline, but Brown betrays little worry. Testing in his yard has not revealed any harm from the sinkhole, he said.

He points out his favorite fishing spot, just past the juncture where the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou merge, then spins his boat back home. One of his three dachshunds stands beside him as the boat picks up speed.

“Hang on, hound dog,” Brown says to his dachshund, Fritz. As he pulls up to dock, he turns to a visitor and glances upon the water. “This is what we’re staying for.”