Photo provided by Louisiana State Police

The Advocate

BY BRET H. MCCORMICK

River Parishes bureau

October 14, 2012

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BAYOU CORNE — Although the Louisiana Office of Conservation last week accused Texas Brine Co. of Houston of causing a 4.2-acre sinkhole near the Napoleonville Dome in northern Assumption Parish, some area residents said Saturday they have bigger concerns than who’s to blame.

“Are we ever gonna be safe to live here?” asked Henry Welch, who has lived on Jambalaya Street off of La. 70 near Bayou Corne for the past seven years.

“That is a damn good question,” said Duane Bier, who lives near Welch on Bream Street.

Welch and his wife, Carolyn, are among about 150 families living along Bayou Corne who have been forced to evacuate since the sinkhole emerged in a wooded area south of La. 70 between Grand Bayou and Bayou Corne on Aug. 3. For the past 72 days, the couple has traveled back and forth between their home in Bayou Corne and a trailer they rented in Donaldsonville.

On Friday, Henry Welch said, the couple purchased an RV and plans to park it in Pierre Part for the duration of the mandatory evacuation that was ordered by Assumption Parish officials.

The problem residents have when trying to plan for the future, Carolyn Welch said, is they simply don’t know when they’ll be allowed to return home.

“The uncertainty and not knowing when it’s going to be over” has been the hardest part, she said. “It could be two months. It could be two years. We just don’t know.”

Assumption Parish Sheriff Mike Waguespack said Saturday he’s been frustrated by the entire process of making the families do without the comfort of their own homes. However, officials are unsure what potential dangers remain and it’s unsafe to allow the residents to stay in the vicinity of the sinkhole.

“I’m very frustrated with the time it’s taking to find a resolution, and I get to go home every night,” Waguespack said, “so I can’t imagine what they’re going through.”

Bier said he has been beyond frustrated by the process and doesn’t believe he and his fellow Bayou Corne residents have received too many truthful answers from state officials.

“I don’t know what the hell’s gonna happen,” Bier said.

Bier and his wife of 45 years, Betty, first bought property along Bayou Corne in 1978. They had a small camp in the area for years that he used “to drink and fish — in that order,” he said, joking.

“We had a lot of good times out here,” Betty Bier said.

They enjoyed the bayou so much that they turned the camp into a full-fledged house, with Duane Bier spending five years renovating the property and the couple moving to the area permanently in 2000.

Now, they don’t know what the future holds. Betty Bier said most residents are like her and don’t want to leave the area.

“I love my little place here,” she said.

Duane Bier, however, said he’s upset that he didn’t know how dangerous the situation could become when he decided to move from Baton Rouge 12 years ago.

“I feel certain that I’m going to move from here,” he said, as his wife shook her head in disagreement.

Since the sinkhole was discovered, the Biers have bounced around, staying a few days in Vicksburg, Natchez, Biloxi and other cities in Mississippi, as well as Morgan City, Houma and their home in Bayou Corne.

Ultimately, they said, they just want truthful answers and to be able to settle back into their home again one day.

Carolyn Welch wasn’t nearly as harsh in her assessment as her husband or Duane Bier. Henry Welch said he was frustrated with Department of Natural Resources officials who keep changing the answers they’re giving residents and with the lack of response from Gov. Bobby Jindal, while Duane Bier called the officials “liars” who “haven’t told us no truths about nothing yet.”

But Carolyn Welch did admit to being frustrated, despite not having as tough of a situation as some of her neighbors who have small children or are elderly and sick.

While the residents were more concerned with their future than who was to blame, Waguespack said he was not surprised that Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure, the contractor analyzing the situation for the Office of Conservation, assessed responsibility to Texas Brine.

“All along I felt the responsibility was going to rely with Texas Brine,” he said.

Using the “benefit of hindsight,” Waguespack said Texas Brine officials should have continued to monitor their well after a failed integrity test in 2010 instead of simply plugging it, abandoning it and moving on.

“It seems these guys should have put a little bit more controls in place to monitor the situation,” Waguespack said.

Had that been the case, perhaps the 150 families displaced for more than two months wouldn’t be facing the situation in which they now they find themselves. Henry Welch said he’s thankful for everything Texas Brine has done for his family and other residents up to this point — such as paying for temporary housing expenses — but at some point, it might be time for the company to do even more.

“Everybody wants the same thing I want: If we can’t come back, help us get somewhere we can have a home,” he said.