Assumption Parish residents seek sinkhole buyouts

BATON ROUGE, La. — Frustrated Assumption Parish residents displaced by a massive sinkhole that has swallowed 9 acres of land near their homes asked lawmakers this week to assist them in getting buyouts of their property.

People who packed a Tuesday hearing of the Senate and House natural resources and environment committees described 200 days of disruption and uncertainty since an August evacuation order of 150 homes.

They talked of children moved from schools and scared of their own houses, retirement dreams upended and families struggling to pay two mortgages while they decide what to do with their future and with their now nearly-worthless property.

“This has taken too damn long and people need to be bought out. They can’t go back,” said Henry Dupre, an Assumption Parish police juror.

The sinkhole opened up in August near a community along Bayou Corne, a sparsely populated area of swampland about 40 miles south of Baton Rouge.

Scientists say the sinkhole formed after the failure of an underground salt cavern operated by Houston-based Texas Brine Co. LLC, which extracted brine and piped it to nearby petrochemical facilities. The cavern failure released oil and natural gas from formations along the salt dome face.

Officials issued an evacuation order to about 350 people living in the area that has remained in effect for nearly seven months, with no immediate end in sight.

“How long is long enough? I, for one, want out … We are not lab rats, and I refuse to be treated that way,” Gary Metrejean, who has lived in the Bayou Corne area for 14 years wrote in a letter read by state Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part.

Others said they don’t want to move if they could feel safe to return to their communities. But how and when the area will be stabilized remains unclear.

“The collapse is not finished. The seismic activity that we’re monitoring makes it clear that the cavern is still collapsing,” said Gary Hecox, a geologist with CB&I, which has contracted with the state on its response efforts.

No buyouts have been offered so far, with Texas Brine officials saying they are focused on immediate response efforts. Some residents have filed lawsuits against the company.

“Texas Brine continues to provide financial support for residents within the mandatory evacuation zone. Texas Brine recognizes and understands the issue of buyouts, which has been expressed by several property owners. At this time, no decision has been made regarding this matter,” company spokesman Sonny Cranch said in a statement.

Bruce Martin, vice president of operations for Texas Brine, told lawmakers that the company expects to have the site fully contained by April. He said drilling operations to remove methane gas that has shown up in the sinkhole area have progressed so that more gas is being vented out than is being replenished.

Lawmakers will meet again about the sinkhole next month, and they made no promises about what they might do in response, if anything.

Wilma Subra, a chemist representing the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, made suggestions to lawmakers for new regulations. She recommended a requirement that people receive notification before buying property if it is located near a salt dome and new restrictions on drilling near homes and businesses.