Bayou Corne, Louisiana. 13th August, 2012

A 400-foot deep sinkhole in Louisiana is expanding and today swallowed the boat of two cleanup workers who had to be rescued from the hole. Officials are still fearful of the possibility of explosions from nearby gas-filled caverns.

Friday 17th August update:

NAPOLEONVILLE, La. (AP) — Texas Brine Co., the company that owns the brine cavern believed to be responsible for a growing sinkhole in Assumption Parish, said Thursday it will begin compensating families in the evacuation zone.

Sonny Cranch, spokesman for the Houston-based company, said beginning Friday an assistance fund will provide a weekly housing check of $875 to each family affected by the slurry area near Bayou Corne.

Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency for the parish Aug. 3 when the sinkhole rapidly grew, swallowing up trees and liquefying an acre of swampland into muck. At least 150 homes and several businesses were forced to evacuate

As experts predicted, the sinkhole grew by 50 feet Thursday morning as the surrounding environment sloughs into it. Two cleanup workers in a boat near the site almost fell in and had to be rescued by airboat. Their boat, which was tied to a tree, was eventually swallowed by the muck.

There were no injuries reported and cleanup operations have been suspended.

Officials said the sinkhole might be related to structural problems within a brine cavern drilled into the Napoleonville salt dome.

Texas Brine began shipping in equipment for a relief well Wednesday.

Continued:

“It has expanded 50 feet and during that expansion there were workers that were working on the cleanup of the diesel,” Kim Torres, spokeswoman for the Office of Emergency Preparedness, told ABCNews.com today.

The two workers were in a boat tied to a tree when the area where the tree grew fell into the sinkhole.

The workers were rescued by airboat. They were uninjured but their boat disappeared into the sinkhole. The cleanup process has been halted.

The gaping hole measures about 526 feet from northeast to southwest and 640 feet from northwest to southeast. It is in Assumption Parish, La., about 50 miles south of Baton Rouge.

The sinkhole sits in the middle of a heavily wooded space where it has consumed all of the soaring cypress trees that had been there. Flyover photos show some of the treetops still visible through the mud.

Authorities enacted a mandatory evacuation for residents of about 150 homes in the area. Last week, Torres said that most residents chose to stay in their homes. But as of today, 60 percent of those homes have been evacuated even though the mandatory evacuation order was not escalated to a forced evacuation, when authorities remove residents.

“I think everyone realized it was serious even though they felt it was contained [before],” Torres said. “When you put human lives in…it just becomes more serious and maybe people are heeding the warning a little bit more.”

While officials are not certain what caused the massive sinkhole, they believe it may be have been related to a nearby salt cavern owned by the Texas Brine Company.

After being used for nearly 30 years, the cavern was plugged in 2011 and officials believe the integrity of the cavern may have somehow been compromised, leading to the sinkhole.

Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources required that Texas Brine drill a well to investigate the salt cavern as soon as possible, obtain samples from the cavern and provide daily reports on the findings.

The sinkhole is on the outside edge of the salt dome where this particular brine well is located.

“There are some indications that it very well may have been connected, but there’s just indications,” Texas Brine Company spokesman Sonny Cranch told ABCNews.com. “There’s nothing concrete that has connected the sinkhole to the cavern.”

The exploratory rig is being assembled but parts of it are still being shipped. It could take 40 days for the actual drilling to begin, even with an expedited process, Torres said.

In the meantime, officials and residents are left to worry about the possibility of an explosion.

All of the neighboring natural gas pipelines that were of concern last week have been depressurized and emptied, but the nearby caverns are still causing concern.

One cavern that contains 940,000 gallons of butane is of particular concern, Torres said. It’s about 2,000 feet from the sinkhole.

Authorities are concerned about the massive explosion that could result from the butane’s release to the surface if the sinkhole were to expand far enough to reach it.

There was bubbling in the water and the sinkhole is near areas where there has been exploration for oil and gas in the past. This would make the presence of low levels of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) possible.

The state’s Department of Environmental Quality said water samples from the sinkhole showed oil and diesel fuel on its surface, but readings have not detected any dangerous levels of radiation.

“It’s not going to get fixed tomorrow,” Torres said. “We urge the residents to leave to protect themselves. We have no idea how far this sinkhole will expand or in what direction. We have no clue.”

UPDATE:

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – The state Department of Natural Resources said Monday it has approved a drilling permit for a relief well in Assumption Parish, hoping the new well will shed some light on the source of a massive sinkhole that has transformed 300 feet of swamp into muck.

DNR Secretary Stephen Chustz said Houston-based Texas Brine Co. will drill into an abandoned brine cavern that the company owns in the Napoleonville salt dome in an effort to determine possible structural instability, pressures, or natural gas inside.

The company is still responsible for regular reports on the progress of drilling and the methods it will use to determine the status of the cavern when they reach it, Chustz said.

“We will hold them to that requirement and ensure that we maintain transparency in these operations for the public throughout,” Chustz said in a statement.

Scientists believe the cavern may be the cause of the sinkhole, which swallowed up an acre of bald cypress trees 10 days ago and has since grown into a slurry area 372 feet wide and 422 feet deep.

Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said company officials are in the process of preparing the site for a drilling rig and that components could be arriving as early as Wednesday.

“We are not going to bring a drilling rig in close proximity to the edge of the sinkhole…What we intend to do is set up several hundred feet away and drill directionally into the roof of the cavern. We’re aware of the risks,” Mark Cartwright, president of United Brine Services, a subsidiary of Texas Brine Co., said Friday at a press conference in Gonzales.

Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, said the process is finally moving in the right direction. He said it’s time the state considers legislation to get full disclosure to people on whether there are pipelines, abandoned wells or salt caverns beneath their homes.

“I dare say 99 percent of people who are living above a system like this have no idea what they’re living above. We have to be more transparent about what’s underground,” Harrison said.

Conservation Commissioner Jim Welsh ordered the company to drill the well Thursday. Texas Brine has also been directed to set up a relief fund for residents of 150 homes who were forced to evacuate after Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency in Assumption Parish.

Officials say the original permit that the company filed for the brine cavern requires that it assist residents in the event that a sinkhole is discovered on company-owned property. Texas Brine has agreed to make a “significant contribution” to a fund, but details on how the fund will be managed and distributed have not been figure out yet, Cranch said.

“We’re collaborating with the parish president and DNR and others to figure out the best way to manage funds. The process now is just to figure out how to set up the fund and what procedure will be used to assist these residents who are in the evacuation zone,” Cranch said.

Bayou Corne resident Vickie Guilbeaux said that a relief fund isn’t going to be enough for most people. Guilbeaux evacuated her home and has been staying in property she owns in Port Allen. Even if everything goes according to plan with the relief well, she said, she’d be too afraid to return.

“I will be scared every night and every day if I go back to my home. I don’t feel safe at all anymore,” she said.

She believes the relief fund won’t be enough for many of the residents who have decided not to evacuate.

John Boudreaux, director of the parish’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, estimates that around 350 people, or half of those who were required to evacuate, have actually vacated their homes.

“We’ve worked all our lives, working hard, to put our dream homes together that we wanted to have when we retired. Then our dreams are going down like the hole in the swamp,” Guilbeaux said.

LAWSUIT UPDATE:

NEW ORLEANS (CN) – An enormous, foul-smelling, possibly radioactive sinkhole swallowed an acre of cypress trees and forced 150 home evacuations, Louisianans say in a class action against the Texas Brine Co.
“On Friday, August 3, 2012, a sinkhole, 422 feet deep and 372 feet wide emerged releasing a foul diesel odor and created salt-water slurry, which contains diesel fuel,” the federal class action begins.
Lead plaintiff Lisa LeBlanc and the class live in Assumption Parish, about 50 miles south of Baton Rouge. According to the federal complaint, a salt cavern failed, which Texas Brine Co. was using to store radioactive material, a byproduct of the drilling industry.
The class claims that Texas Brine knew the cavern walls were liable to breach as early as January 2011, but failed to warn the public.
“The public was not warned in January 2011 or any time thereafter or prior of the potential danger resulting from the failure of this cavern and the general public had no knowledge of the storage of the radioactive material in the cavern,” the complaint states.
The class claims Texas Brine “used the cavern as a deposit area for naturally occurring radioactive material arising from drilling into two defendant-owned salt caverns … ”
“In early September 2010, defendant began reworking the cavern well, milling a section of salt higher than the existing cavern roof, at 3,400 feet deep, to see if the upper strata could be mined. This area extends for about 100 feet through the well casing above the cavern roof.
“On January 21, 2011, Mark J. Cartwright, President of Texas Brine Co. Saltville informed the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (LDNR), via letter, about a failed integrity test of the cavern and suspicion that the cavern may have breached the Napoleonville Dome’s outer wall. These problems with the cavern led to the cavern being plugged in June 2011. The area milled in September 2010 may be the source of the salt dome breach.
“LDNR records show that Defendant had been examining the cavern’s wall at
least since June 2010.”
The class claims Assumption Parish officials ordered the area evacuated on Friday, Aug. 3, the day the sinkhole opened.
On Saturday, Aug. 11, Texas Brine agreed to make a “significant contribution” to a fund set up to help residents evacuate, according to The Associated Press.
A U.S. Department of Energy document on storage of naturally occurring radioactive material in salt caverns states that oil field wastes – but not other industrial wastes – are exempted from the hazardous waste requirements of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
According to that document, “Disposal of NORM [naturally occurring radioactive material]-Contaminated Oil Field Wastes in Salt Caverns”: “On July 6, 1988, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a regulatory determination that exempted any wastes arising from the exploration, development, and production of crude oil, natural gas, and geothermal energy from regulation as hazardous wastes under RCRA Subtitle C (53 FR 25477). … Given the federal exemption from RCRA for oil field wastes, the waste management requirements faced by most operators will be state requirements.”
The document, which was released in 1998, states that Louisiana law prohibited storage of naturally occurring radioactive waste in salt caverns, and that the law would have to be amended before storage would be possible.
The class seeks compensatory, statutory and punitive damages, medical monitoring and costs. Their lead counsel is Daniel Becnel Jr., of Reserve, La.

AUGUST 24th update:

 

A non-government group is urging Bayou Corne sinkhole area residents to use a new record log as a veteran radiation expert says Louisiana environmental officials are “in denial” over hazards posed by elevated radium levels that are actually fifteen times higher than the state limit, a “worst nightmare coming true,” according to an environmental attorney.

Stanley Waligora, a New Mexico-based radiation protection consultant and leading authority on health risks of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) has confirmed that radium levels at Bayou Corne’s sinkholeare not within safe limits, but instead, roughly 15 times higher than the state’s acceptable level, according to one of the nation’s leading environmental attorney’s Stuart Smith.

 

State officials are saying NORM is is below hazardous levels, but the independent findings indicate other actions need to be taken, including residents using Louisiana Environmental Action Network’s report logs to record signs and symptoms of ill health.

 

 

The information about radium is buried in a state news release, poorly written, “and goes out of its way to downplay the results,” Smith said Wednesday.

 

This week, after state officials released the results of samples taken 80 feet under the surface of the growing, slurry-filled pit, Marco Kaltofen, a civil engineer and president of Boston Chemical Data Corp., noted those results posted by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, show elevated rates of NORM in the sinkhole.

 

NORM is a frequent byproduct of the oil and gas drilling process, creating wastes that industry has often then dumped improperly, according to Smith who specializes in this area of environmental law.

 

Kaltofen’s analysis of the situation in Bayou Corne includes:

 

“Radium in the body is absorbed because it is chemically similar to calcium. The normal maximum guideline level for radium in surface water is 5 picoCuries per liter, (pCi/L). The state’s testing found 82 pCi/L in the water of the growing sinkhole. Radium gives off alpha’ radiation. This form of radiation is extremely dangerous if inhaled or ingested, and less dangerous if exposed by skin contact.”

 

When radium decays, it produces the dangerous radioactive gas, radon. EPA warns that radon gas causes lung cancer, and exposure can be as hazardous to your lungs as a serious cigarette habit.

 

 

“Waligora said officials with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality need to launch immediate additional testing to ensure that the hazardous radium is not leaking into nearby groundwater and posing a threat to human health as well as livestock,” Smith has stated Friday.

 

Waligora’s recommendations come two days after Smith’s blog first reported that analysis of DEQ test results from Bayou Corne, posted by the LEANouisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), revealed elevated radium levels and airborne chemicals associated with highly volatile butane stored by Crosstex in a cavern near the sinkhole.

 

They also come two days after Homeland Security Louisiana announced that officials are stepping up around-the-clock emergency operations near Bayou Corne’s sinkhole, including extra Hazardous Materials & Explosive Units.

 

LEAN, after reporting lethal contaminants found in the sinkhole area, is urging residents to use the new report log it has for recording signs and symptoms of poisoning, as reported by theExaminer on Wednesday.

 

The Advocate reports Friday, “In two statements released Tuesday, LEAN noted air monitoring by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality since Aug. 4 over the sinkhole and in the neighborhoods near the sinkhole had picked up, depending on the location, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, other volatile organic compounds and components of natural gas.”

 

‘Worst nightmare coming true,’ says attorney

 

If the butane in the sinkhole vicinity exploded, it would meet, according to the National Terror Alert, the definition of a dirty bomb.

 

“I sought an analysis of the recent DEQ test results from Waligora, who since a stint as a nuclear weapons officer in the U.S. military has been teaching, consulting and testifying as an expert witness in radiation litigation for more than 45 years,” asserted Smith Friday.

 

He expressed concern that the state reported its findings of radium-226 and radium-228 as “below acceptable levels,” when in fact, the results were 15 times higher than the state’s own standard for soil contamination.

 

“Well, once again the Louisiana DEQ is in denial because they don’t know what to do about the radioactive contamination in the Bayou Corne subsidence,” Waligora wrote, adding the following findings:

 

There are immediate radiation dose concerns, not only cumulative toxin concerns.

 

“The release could reach the usable aquifer and contaminate drinking water along with livestock and irrigated crops,” Waligora says. “The DEQ must sample ground water to assess any transport. Airborne particulate might become entrained and cause contamination to be inhaled by the public. DEQ must collect air samples to assess the airborne radioactive particulate. Radon gas emanating from the radium could be inhaled by members of the public. DEQ needs to monitor airborne radon.

 

“A long range plan must be developed for remedial action. Funding should be provided by the oil companies that used the cavern for disposal,” asserted Waligora.

 

Waligora reports being concerned about DEQ understating of the Bayou Corne risks because of what he has witnessed in other cases handled by the troubled agency:

 

“This is reminiscent of the illegal waste disposal that was discovered several years ago at St. Gabriel. The community complained about illegal disposal of radioactive waste. DEQ sent a team to investigate who determined that there was no problem. Complaints continued and a second DEQ team investigated and again said that there was no problem. Finally, a legal action attracted the EPA who found widespread contamination. The responsible party had no worth so the site was cleaned up with Superfund support. The cleanup took over one year and cost over $1million. Quite a bit for ‘no problem.’”

 

Earlier this year, Smith joined the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in calling for the EPA to intervene and assume responsibility from DEQ because the agency was “overwhelmed and “in the back pocket of the businesses it’s supposed to be regulating.”

 

 

“Although company officials informed the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources in early 2011 of significant problems at the cavern, local residents and authorities were not told of the risk even after they began complaining this summer of shaking homes and noxious orders,” Smith says.

 

National Terror Alert (NTA) recently reported that due to recent terrorist events, people have expressed concern about a possible terrorist attack involving radioactive materials, possibly through the use of a “dirty bomb,” and the harmful effects of radiation from such an event.

 

The NTA developed a dirty bomb fact sheet including:

 

“A dirty bomb, or radiological dispersion device, is a bomb that combines conventional explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive materials inthe form of powder or pellets. The idea behind a dirty bomb is to blast radioactive material into the area around the explosion. This could possibly cause buildings and people to be exposed to radioactive material. The main purpose of a dirty bomb is to frighten people and make buildings or land unusable for a long period of time.

 

 

“In Bayou Corne, we are witnessing our worst nightmares coming true,” Smith asserted Friday. “It’s time for the EPA and other outside authorities to step in and make sure that proper testing is done and that emergency measures are carried out.”

 

The sinkhole, now the size of three football fields, shaped like an upside-down Superdome Stadium, and filled with liquid slurry is blamed on Texas Brine Co.’s failed salt cavern near Bayou Corne.

“There’s no excuse for allowing this new Louisiana catastrophe to get any worse,” Smith says.

Sources: The Advocate, Stuart Smith, Louisiana Environmental Action Network

 

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