The Sinkhole That's Eating Louisiana

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A cancerous ulcer in the Earth bigger than the Superdome is sucking down a poor, industrial stretch of bayou country known as Cancer Alley. Julie Dermansky/Corbis

 

“They goin’ down,” John Boudreaux recalls telling a colleague as he recorded the watery cataclysm unfolding before him with an iPhone camera. “They” were a grove of cypress trees; “down” was into a sinkhole in rural Louisiana that had steadily grown to a depth of several hundred feet of fetid water – and was in the throes of a violent growth spurt. Boudreaux’s video, posted on YouTube in late August, went viral in the way that recordings of disaster tend to, leading to alarmist headlines: e.g., “Mining Madness: 750-Foot-Deep Sinkhole Swallows Louisiana Town.”

That sinkhole was then a year old, and Boudreaux, an emergency response official, had filmed it several times by then, though never before had he captured it burping with such violence, sending combustible methane up through fractures in the earth while sucking down trees and soil. Boudreaux is not surprised that his video has spurred widespread fascination. Speaking to Newsweek from the town of Bayou Corne, which has been largely emptied as the sinkhole gnaws away at its borders, he says, “How often do you see a tree go straight down?”

So far, there hasn’t been a fiery explosion. But, in addition to consuming all those trees, the sinkhole has caused small earthquakes and spewed gas and oil. And it’s still growing. State officials estimate it will expand from its current size of about 26 acres to at least 40 acres over the next several years. If, while doing so, it breaks through a modest earthen barrier, it will poison the waters of Bayou Corne, forever spoiling these verdant banks.

Once a rural paradise, Bayou Corne could become a ghost town as a result of a man-made ulcer whose depths defy understanding.

Cancer Alley, a stretch of about 100 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is home to some 150 petrochemical plants, making these swamplands perhaps the most industrialized (and polluted) region in the United States.

The latest plague ravaging Cancer Alley is that enormous sinkhole in Assumption Parish, a burgeoning cavity that is a pestilence both real and symbolic, relentlessly swallowing land while reminding residents of the despoliation the past 60 years have inflicted on their sinuous bayous and abundant cypress groves. As Bayou Corne’s citizens abandon their homes, fleeing the specters of methane and vandals and depressed home values, they stand to become yet another Louisiana community sacrificed to the twin gods of oil and gas.

"It’s like a science-fiction movie,” says Marylee Orr, who heads the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which she runs out of a ranch-style home in Baton Rouge decorated with Kennedy brothers memorabilia (as well as a 1990 cover of Newsweek bemoaning the plight of “Huck’s River” – i.e., the Mississippi). She and other activists are doggedly following the efforts of Texas Brine – the mining company responsible for the sinkhole – to contain the damage and compensate the working-class residents of Bayou Corne, many of whom own little beyond what is now irredeemably ravaged land. At the same time, she and the so-called Green Army of retired Army Lieutenant General Russel Honoré are desperate to end a long-standing laxity toward energy companies, one that gave rise to the quip that the flag of Texaco flies above the state capitol building in Baton Rouge.

"We have the best government in Louisiana that the oil and gas business can buy,” says Honoré, a native of Louisiana who grew up in rural poverty, rising through the military ranks and heading, in his most prominent role, Joint Task Force Katrina after the 2005 hurricane hit New Orleans. Of the seemingly endless favors Louisiana has offered energy companies through either taxation or legislation (or the lack thereof), the man known as the Ragin’ Cajun says, “We the dumbest asses of all.”

Texas Brine, a Houston company, arrived in Bayou Corne in 1976. It drilled a cavern now known as Oxy Geismar #1, so called because the land was owned by the Occidental Chemical Company, which cutely calls itself Oxy, and because the product of that mine travels via pipeline to an Oxy plant in Geismar, in nearby Ascension Parish. Texas Brine drilled Oxy Geismar #2 that same year, then, in 1982, drilled Oxy Geismar #3.

Salt is abundant in Louisiana’s marshy soil, with 127 saline domes distributed throughout the state. The salt dome at Assumption Parish, three miles in length and one in width, is called Napoleonville, an allusion to the French settlers who arrived here more than three centuries ago. It shares that imperial name with a nearby village of 660 residents, whose most famous product is probably New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs. Overall, the state has 254 solution-mined caverns bored into its salt domes, says Patrick Courreges, communications director for the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Texas Brine, which proudly brands itself “the largest independent brine producer in the United States,” came to harvest the contents of the dome. By injecting water to about 5,600 feet below the ground, it created an ever-expanding cavern that filled with highly salty water known as brine. As Texas Brine continued to inject water into the cavern, the cavity grew, filling with brine that was continually being pumped out.

After it is shipped to Geismar, the brine is subjected to the chlor-alkali process, which turns the salt (sodium chloride) into chlorine and caustic soda (sodium hydroxide). Both of these are vital to the petrochemical industry. Chlorine is fundamental in the composition of plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a material that goes into everything from pipes to clothing. A website for the Chlorine Institute, a lobbying group, notes the element’s presence in so many items (bullet-proof vests, antihistamines, surfboards) that nobody could possibly miss the point. As for the sodium hydroxide, it is crucial to a process called caustic washing, which helps purify the oil housed in vast refineries that stand like battlements along what was once Huck and Tom’s riparian paradise. Also known as lye, sodium hydroxide goes into soap and can be used to cure foods like olives. We are dependent on oil, but we are just as dependent on brine. Or, as a company representative put it to me, “This country has an enormous appetite for smartphone cases.”

Those cheap goods come at a cost. On November 20, 1980, a mine on the Jefferson Island salt dome – which sat in the middle of Lake Peigneur, in Iberia Parish – collapsed after the 14-inch-wide drill bit of a Texaco oil rig poked through its ceiling. That amounted to pulling the plug out of a full bathtub, water rushing into the hollows below in what the obscure-history site Damn Interesting artfully calls a “swirling vortex of doom.” Eleven barges and a tugboat were sucked into the whirlpool, whose force started to pull water from the Delcambre Canal, reversing the direction of that waterway and creating Louisiana’s tallest waterfall. More than 65 acres of land were lost. Somehow, nobody died.

Disaster edged closer to Bayou Corne in 2003, when Grand Bayou – a tiny town about a mile east – had to be evacuated after methane started leaking from a salt cavern there. Grand Bayou is flat nothingness today, a concrete foundation suggesting a house of which no other traces remain. A portico sits on the bayou’s overgrown edge; next to it is a marker that names the town and quotes the eminent 19th century Bostonian Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave but not our hearts.”

Despite these twin disasters, most people who built or bought houses in Bayou Corne (corne means antler in French, an allusion to the branches of the bayou) say they had little conception of the malevolence lurking in the cypress thickets beyond the edge of town. “We were living in what truly is a bayou paradise,” says Dennis Landry, a retired teacher, oil industry worker and real estate developer of Cajun descent who can trace his family’s arrival in Louisiana back to the 1780s. In 1994, he founded a subdivision of neat brick manses on the south side of Route 70, along the lush banks of Bayou Corne. He called the subdivision Sportsman’s Paradise, a nickname for Louisiana emblazoned on the state’s license plates.

Piloting in his boat down the bayou, he rhapsodizes on the pleasures of living here, calling one branch of the lazy stream the “most lonesome bayou in Louisiana.” That’s a paradox, considering that industry hems in this wilderness. But when he’s on his boat, Landry forgets all that. “This is one of the few places in the world where a fella can live and, when those cool breezes in the fall start blowing, he can make an early morning hunt, catch a mess of fish, and still make it to [Louisiana State University’s] Tiger Stadium on time for kickoff in Baton Rouge.”

But a mandatory evacuation order has been in place for more than a year, and though many of his neighbors remain (it is not yet a forced evacuation), the subdivision has the uneasy feel of emptiness, as does the poorer section of town on the other side of Route 70. Landry laments that “now, paradise is threatened.”

Sinkhole Protest sign on a resident's lawn raising issue with the sinkhole that was created when a salt cavern being mined by Texas Brine Co. failed. Julie Dermansky/Corbis The terror of sinkholes dates at least to the Bible. In the Book of Numbers, a band of 250 led by an Israelite named Korah rebel against Moses. Yahweh does not take their disloyalty lightly:

And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them: and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation. (Numbers 16:31)

The sinkhole in Bayou Corne does not, as far as anyone knows, have a divine origin. Texas Brine was always aware that its Oxy #3 cavern was close to the western edge of the Napoleonville salt dome, but there was no firm state regulation on how close was too close. Company engineers figured they had a buffer of 150 feet, though they was relying on grievously outdated geological surveys from the 1950s.

About nine years after the well was drilled, in 1991, a study by Sandia National Laboratories suggested that Texas Brine was perilously close to puncturing Napoleonville’s edge. A subsequent 1995 report by Sandia found the Oxy #3 cavern to be located on an “overhang” and warned that an “inadequate buffer existed.” That report ditched the desiccated language of science for this ominous prediction: “Man’s actions can change many things, often unwittingly, and sometimes with quite unexpected results.”

But the reports went unheeded, as did later warnings, even after an internal Texas Brine memo plainly revealed that some within the company were worried: “If we get greedy on our salt extraction…we could cause disaster.” The mining continued until May 2009. A year later, Texas Brine tried to reopen the cavern, only to have it fail a mechanical integrity test. In early 2011, Texas Brine plugged and abandoned Oxy Geismar #3.

The bubbles that started surfacing on Bayou Corne in the late spring of 2011 could have been caused by nothing more than natural decomposition. Swamp gas – methane – often bubbles up from the bayous of Louisiana, which are rich with decaying organic matter. But Dennis Landry suspected otherwise. His grandfather had been a swamper in these bayous, clearing cypress groves and collecting moss (then used in upholstery). On May 30, 2012, When Landry and his wife first saw bubbles near one of three natural gas pipelines that runs beneath Bayou Corne, they figured a leak had sprung and quickly called Crosstex, the pipe’s owner. Company engineers came, did their tests, and found nothing. And yet the waters still roiled. There were tremors, too, some registering as high as a 3 on the Richter scale. On June 19, without yet knowing the source of the bubbles or mini-quakes, Assumption Parish declared a state of emergency, fearing combustible methane.

Then the ground opened up. On August 3, 2012, the side of the salt cavern deep below the earth gave way, causing a surface depression that quickly filled with water; this insta-lake was about 300 feet across and perhaps as many feet deep. Newly formed fractures allowed methane and oil that had been trapped near the edges of the dome to burst to the surface, revealing the source of the bubbles that had befuddled the Landrys back in May.

Officials immediately descended on Bayou Corne; after Landry demanded and got a flyover of the sinkhole threatening his property, he saw “a giant mud hole” devouring the tupelo gum and cypress trees that had uneasily shared this land with pipelines, wells and storage tanks. “When I passed over the sinkhole, I thought I caught a glimpse of hell on Earth.”

Texas Brine moved quickly to contain the damage as the sinkhole grew wider and deeper, eventually attaining a depth of about 750 feet. It installed containment and absorption booms to halt the spread of oil. It built relief wells that are supposed to siphon off escaping methane and send it to flares – which can be seen around Bayou Corne, burning like the torches of an invading army. According to Mark Cartwright, the senior Texas Brine executive on site, some 45 million cubic feet of natural gas have been released, though some put that number at 100 or even 200 million. Cartwright says 20 million cubic feet of gas have been burned off and that residents’ fears of an explosion are unfounded. Close to 7,000 barrels of oil have been dislodged by the cavern’s collapse, too; a little less than half of this amount made its way to the surface, while the rest filled the damaged cavern. These leaks have supposedly been contained, though an oleaginous slick laps at the edges of this freakish lake, clinging to the duckweed and driftwood like an unwanted friend.

"We have a very good understanding of the geology,” Cartwright says, calling the sinkhole “the most explored and investigated real estate in the world.” That boast aside, the sinkhole now covers 26 acres and will probably reach about 40, though its growth remains largely erratic and unpredictable. In truth, nobody really knows what will happen, because, as Cartwright acknowledges, “Sinkholes are mysterious by nature, this one in particular.”

Trapped in a slowly unfurling apocalypse, the residents of this remote town have sought the attention of the greater public. Louisiana’s governor, the young Republican Bobby Jindal, finally visited Bayou Corne in March 2013, promising residents that Texas Brine would pay: “We’re going to hold their feet to the fire. We’re going to hold them accountable.” The state of Louisiana has sued the company to recoup its own costs for containing the sinkhole, which currently stand at about $12 million.

But Jindal’s rhetoric got far less attention than the video shot this past August by Boudreaux, the head of emergency preparedness for Assumption Parish. Taken from close range, it shows trees disappearing into the water, which then foams with whitecapped fury. Almost as soon as the video was posted online, the headlines appeared:

"Watching This Louisiana Sinkhole Swallow Trees Has Put Us in a Trance” (MSN)

"Cool Video Captures Sinkhole After It Comes Back to Life” (The Blaze)

"The Sinkhole That Swallowed a Swamp” (The Verge)

Reporters descended on Bayou Corne, eager for an easy storyline of beleaguered locals abused by heartless corporations. Mother Jones deemed Bayou Corne “the biggest ongoing industrial disaster in the United States you haven’t heard of.”

The residents of Bayou Corne, those who remain and those who have been displaced, are grateful for the attention, but they do not want to serve as cautionary tales. They understand the geopolitical considerations at hand, but their greatest worries are of the mundane variety.

"We were forced out of our lives,” says Carla Alleman, who has survived breast cancer and left behind one of the town’s more sumptuous homes. I met her and another displaced resident, Candy Blanchard, in the drafty backroom of a library in Pierre Part. While Alleman is at least darkly cheerful, Blanchard is morose. She needs me to understand one thing above all: “We are not out of a house. We are out of a home.”

Shortly after Jindal’s visit, Texas Brine started offering residents buyouts of their homes; 68 of 150 have taken the offer, though many say that even the market-value price is not enough to start a new life elsewhere. That’s why many are suing, inspired by activist Erin Brockovich, who famously won a $333 million settlement for the residents of Hinkley, Calif., whose water had been tainted by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Meanwhile, Texas Brine is paying all Bayou Corne residents $875 per week for their evacuation expenses – even if some of those collecting this stipend are still in their homes. Texas Brine wants this to be seen as an act of munificence, though many here are quick to point out that the company’s contract with the state requires it to compensate residents in the event of displacement.

"We’ve done everything imaginable to make these people feel secure in their homes,” says Cartwright, with a touch of exasperation, describing the air monitors and subsurface ventilation systems that are supposed to reassure those who’ve remained, and adding that he would have “no worries whatsoever” about living in Bayou Corne. His eyes narrow as he considers the motives of locals who’ve refused buyouts. “Virtually any industrial accident today is an opportunity” to sue, he says.

That’s not how Nick and Brenda Romero see it. He is a retired postal worker; she is also retired, a two-time survivor of cancer who paints colorful bayou scenes on driftwood, though she says her inspiration has fled, crowded out by anxieties about home and health. The Romeros started coming here in 1991, traveling on the weekends from Baton Rouge to stay in a trailer; they built their house in 1996, unaware of the brine extraction taking place nearby.

The Romeros, like most everyone else here, understand that the petrochemical industry will not leave Louisiana until the last hydrocarbon is extracted from the earth. And that is okay, because people here need jobs and people everywhere need oil. They just wish there was more of a “partnership,” as Nick puts it. Of companies like Texas Brine, he says, “You didn’t respect the environment, and you didn’t respect the people.”

That’s maybe an odd sentiment to hear in the conservative backcountry of Louisiana, but people are growing tired of industry’s profligate rule. A recent New Orleans Times-Picayune investigation found that “Louisiana missed out on millions of dollars in oil and gas extraction taxes from 2009 to 2012 because of a faulty collection and refund process at the Department of Revenue.” So shoddy has oversight been that state officials don’t even know how much money the energy companies owe, its auditing so lackadaisical that last year it collected just $40,729 in severance taxes (paid for the extraction of resources like oil and gas). And a 2011 report by the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general found Louisiana to have “the lowest enforcement activity” in the region with “a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect the industry,” instead of people like the Romeros.

“They use Louisiana as a trash ground,” says Honoré.

Residents here whisper about a cancer cluster, about the seemingly high incidence of breast cancer among women. For 30 years now this area has been called Cancer Alley, and though some discount the appellation as fear-mongering, others believe it tells an uneasy truth. Says Landry, “there seems to be a disproportionate amount of cancer in Louisiana, especially in south Louisiana, especially if you’re anywhere close to all these chemical plants on the Mississippi River.”

People in these parts frequently complain of headaches and sore throats, vague ailments that could be nothing – or portents of corporeal doom. They could be getting cancer from all that red meat – or from the hydrocarbons they have been absorbing for decades. At a public meeting in December 2012, Louisiana’s chief epidemiologist, Raoult C. Ratard, told residents that their air was actually cleaner than that of Baton Rouge. “In my opinion,” he said, “stay away from Baton Rouge, stick to Bayou Corne.”

Few trust him. Many have fled, and those who haven’t live in fear, especially since a natural gas explosion remains an “ongoing potential risk,” acknowledges Courreges, the Department of Natural Resources spokesman.

Between cancer and combustion, it’s close to obvious why the streets of Bayou Corne are empty. Windows have been boarded up; “Keep Out” signs abound. The royal purple of LSU flags has faded; a dachshund jumps into the path of my car and starts barking madly, then, as I pass, reluctantly retreats.

Next time someone starts in about how we are a post-industrial society, just rattle off some of the corporate citizens of Geismar, La.: Westlake Vinyls, Hexion Specialty Chemicals, Total Energy Solutions, PCS Nitrogen, Lion Copolymer, International-Matex Tank Terminals, ad pretty much infinitum. A dense conglomeration of petrochemical plants strung along the Mississippi River, Geismar is where the brine from Bayou Corne travels via pipeline to the Oxy plant.

Geismar is also where the name Cancer Alley originated. In 1986, local union workers protested the arrival of the German chemical company BASF Wyandotte. According to the book Chronicles from the Environmental Justice Frontline, by J. Timmons Roberts and Melissa M. Toffolon-Weiss, “Working with the Sierra Club, they showed that 15 plants in the Geismar area had dumped 76 million pounds of toxics into the Mississippi in just one year. They highlighted the links between contaminated marshes and drinking water and cancer and miscarriage rates in the parish.”

The billboards the union workers hoisted around town invoked two horrors. One asked, “Is BASF Chemicals the Gateway to Cancer Alley?” while another suggested that the chemical corporation was erecting a “Bhopal on the Bayou.” The latter is a reference to the 1984 disaster in central India, in which a release of methyl isocyanate (a gas used in pesticide production) from a Union Carbide plant killed several thousand people in a nearby slum. Nobody knows how many died, but it is without dispute the worst industrial disaster in history. Geismar’s troubles are much smaller, but the fears stoked by those billboards linger: Just this past June, an explosion at the Williams Olefins petrochemical plant killed at least two workers and injured 80.

On its website, the Louisiana Chemical Association – a lobbying group for an industry that does not lack influence around here – points out that “chemistry contributes 28 percent of the material input in clothing.” One article has a headline that reads like deadpan: “Air Quality Around Louisiana Schools Is Okay.” (They are some of the worst in the nation, but that’s a whole other pot of gumbo.)

Another posting, ”Fighting the Cancer Alley Myth,” notes, “It’s a natural inclination for people to blame someone or something for things they can’t control (and don’t really understand).” A weirdly paternalistic tone pervades, as if the residents of Louisiana weren’t quite smart enough to know what was good for them and had, in fact, confused industry for a potential malefactor, when the very opposite was true. Regardless of whether Cancer Alley is an accurate name or not, the Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium notes that the state has “one of the highest cancer mortality rates in the nation.” Louisiana is ranked by the United Health Foundation as the 48th healthiest state in the nation. It can gloat only over neighboring Mississippi and Arkansas.

Maybe Geismar is more than an endless procession of chain-link fences, cylindrical storage tanks and smokestacks that look like shorn, sun-blasted tree trunks. If so, I missed it. The most vibrant place I found was a gas station that advertised pork cracklings, its air thick with dust and grease. For more expensive diversion, there is a strip club in town called the Crazy Horse Cabaret, with one Yelp review advising to “ask for the Puerto Rican.” The only hint of a nonchemical past I came across was the Ashland Plantation, a worn, colonnaded dowager at the edge of town. Like many of the river plantations here, it is owned by the nearby chemical company – in this case, Shell. An elderly African-American gentleman parked by the side of the road said he remembered when you could hunt the plantation’s grounds. Now he was foraging for fallen pecans in the dry leaf bed next to the fence that surrounds Ashland.

The names of the chemicals that flow through Cancer Alley invite thoughts of villainy – molybdenum oxide, vinyl esters, styrene monomer – yet they are essential. If you’ve ever eaten yogurt out of a plastic cup or packaged something in foam, you’ve benefited from styrene’s durable, flexible carbon latticework. So be sure to thank the good folks at Americas Styrenics, in St. James, La.

I took a tour of Cancer Alley with Wilma Subra, a chemist who has become the region’s most celebrated environmentalist. In 1999, she won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for her advocacy, much of which is conducted through the Louisiana Environmental Action Network; after the Deepwater Horizon spill, The Guardian suggested that she could be bumbling BP chief Tony Hayward’s “worst nightmare.”

Subra is an activist, not a polemicist – she is too obviously intelligent for that. For example, she thinks Jindal has done a generally good job in managing the Bayou Corne sinkhole, an opinion at odds with that of many locals. She understands, too, the paradox of Louisiana: Blessed with a cornucopia of natural resources, as well as a powerful river that bores through the middle of America, Louisiana is cursed with all the technologies needed to extract, refine, and transport that wealth. “We don’t have anything,” she says, “and yet we have everything.”

The region was explored in the 17th century by the lapsed Jesuit Robert Cavelier de La Salle, who claimed the land for Louis XIV of France. As he travelled through what is now Louisiana, one of his men wrote that “the great river Mississippi is very beautiful in all places.” In 1803, Thomas Jefferson agreed on the Louisiana Purchase with the French, buying the land for about $15 million, in part to further his vision of an agrarian America. Since then, Louisiana has given us plenty, from oil to jazz to gumbo, not to mention Louis Armstrong, Truman Capote and more professional football players, per capita, than any other state. Louisiana arguably has very little to show for it. At the very least, the sullying of its water is nothing new; in the classic New Orleans novel A Confederacy of Dunces, written by John Kennedy Toole in 1963, cantankerous antihero Ignatius Reilly muses that the Mississippi River is “a treacherous and sinister body of water.… I have never known anyone who would even venture to stick his toe in its polluted brown waters, which seethe with sewage, industrial waste, and deadly insecticides. Even the fish are dying.”

Courreges insists that his native state is better than that. Raised in Natchitoches Parish, close to the Texas border (“the sticks,” he jokes), he left Louisiana for the Navy, eventually returning to work as a journalist before joining one of the state’s most maligned agencies. While avowing “utmost respect” for vociferous critics like Honoré, he says they are unwilling to acknowledge how much has changed in Louisiana, as evidenced in the lack of leniency supposedly shown to Texas Brine. “We have the same goals as they do,” Courreges says of the environmentalists. “We live here too.”

Some can bear it no longer. After almost three decades, Clarence and Susie Hernandez are finally leaving Bayou Corne. The movers came on his 83rd birthday, and emptied the house he built with his own hands. Susie is also 83, though the bright purple of her LSU T-shirt subtracts a good decade. “We didn’t think we’d ever have to leave,” she says of the 28 years she and her husband have spent here. Now, having settled with Texas Brine, they will go elsewhere. “This a bump in the road,” Susie says. “We’re gonna get past it. It’ll be hard, but we will.”

Most everyone admits that it is impossible to predict what the sinkhole will do: It might grow at a leisurely pace, or it might be waiting to spew untold volumes of gas and oil in a volcano of noxious slime. That’s why, maybe, it is best to get as far away from it as possible. Science can offer reassurances, but it cannot quell the animal terror of being eaten by the ground we stand on.

Video by Storyhunter

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