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?
As he spoke, his eyes glistened.