BY DAVID J. MITCHELL
River Parishes bureau
September 25, 2012
BAYOU CORNE — State and Assumption Parish officials sharply disputed Tuesday night Texas Brine Co.’s claim that earth tremors caused the failure of its salt cavern that is suspected as the source of a 4-acre sinkhole in the Bayou Corne area.
Stephen Chustz, interim secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, and Assumption Parish Police Jury President “Marty” Triche criticized the Houston company for disseminating the hypothesis to news organizations at 10:31 p.m. Monday without first having government agencies and scientists review it.
The agencies and a scientific working group are investigating the sinkhole, as well as natural gas bubbles in area waterways and tremors in the Bayou Corne area that preceded the sinkhole by two months.
“It obviously was a spin by Texas Brine to defuse the situation when they had to acknowledge to you all and the public that their cavern has failed, so we were very disappointed in how they handled that, and rightfully so,” Triche told about 75 people gathered during a hastily called community meeting at Sportsman’s Landing in Bayou Corne.
Chustz added that DNR also was disappointed to see Texas Brine’s statement.
He said the company broke away from the collaborative process being used to understand what is happening with the sinkhole and the company’s cavern. He said the company would be held accountable for the failure of its cavern.
Chustz also flatly rejected Texas Brine’s central claim from Monday night, which it based, in part, on U.S. Geological Survey monitoring.
“USGS, we spoke to them today. They stated plainly to us today, the folks from USGS, that the cavern collapse caused the seismic activity, not the other way around,” Chustz said.
The sinkhole was found Aug. 3 in swampland located between Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou and south of La. 70 south and forced the evacuation of residents of 150 households.
DNR scientists have said they suspected that the cavern failed, leaked its brine contents and caused the sinkhole, which is about 475 feet wide and about 200 feet from the salt cavern.
Triche told the gathered residents that Texas Brine findings are confirmation of this long-suspected idea.
The cavern was hollowed out of the 1-mile-by-3-mile Napoleonville Dome that was pushed up vertically from ancient sea beds.
For decades, industry has used the dome for brine production. The perimeter also has been the focus of intensive oil and gas exploration.
Hollowed from the solid salt formation, caverns left by brine production often are used later for storage of natural gas, butane and other hydrocarbons. Brine is used for several industrial processes.
The community meeting capped a busy day of reaction to the Texas Brine news statement from the previous night.
Texas Brine officials said Monday that a diagnostic tool used to measure the depth of the underground cavern found its floor is 1,300 feet shallower than when it was abandoned in mid-2011, indicating “some type of dense material has fallen to the bottom of the cavern.”
Under orders from the Office of Conservation, Texas Brine had hired a contractor to drill an investigatory well to peer inside the cavern.
After more than a month of work, Texas Brine’s drillers punched through the roof of the cavern Saturday night and testing began Monday after natural gas in the cavern was flared off, Texas Brine officials have said.
Texas Brine noted Monday that “seismic events began to concentrate around the sinkhole only a few days before it appeared.”
“Texas Brine and the experts who have reviewed the available data believe that the damage to brine cavern No. 3 originated with regional-scale seismic activity,” the statement says.
Supporting its conclusion, Texas Brine said, “Data compiled over the past several months by government agencies and contractors, as well as from scientific studies commissioned by Texas Brine, suggest that the cavern damage was caused by an external source.”
In response to this claim, Louisiana Conservation Commissioner James Welsh ordered Texas Brine on Tuesday to turn over all studies and data supporting the company’s claim that underground tremors caused the failure of the company’s salt cavern in Assumption Parish, the agency said in a news release Tuesday afternoon.
The order threatens fines or penalties for noncompliance.
Welsh dubbed the Texas Brine news statement “a unilateral declaration” by the company. He asserted the company let its own interests “guide a premature conclusion” lacking sufficient support and broke away from the cooperative process being used to determine the cause of the sinkhole.
“The investigation and the remediation for environmental damages will be driven by the best science available and carried out to standards set by the state of Louisiana to ensure the safety of the Bayou Corne community — and will not be driven by Texas Brine’s timetable or concerns about corporate liability,” Welsh said in a statement.
John Boudreaux, director of the Assumption Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said in a Tuesday interview that the information should have been first passed on to the government agencies involved and a scientific team working with DNR.
“No government agency knew, including DNR, that actual information, before (the company put) it out to the press, and we should have been informed of this important data,” Boudreaux said.
Sonny Cranch, the spokesman for Texas Brine who distributed the challenged company statement, declined comment Tuesday. He was present for the community meeting also.
Assumption Parish officials also asserted, as Welsh said, that it is too soon to conclude what caused the failure of the cavern.
“There is not enough information to make the determination, Boudreaux said.
Welsh has directed contractor Shaw Group to conduct an independent root cause analysis of the cavern failure, the office statement says.