Louisiana Lawmakers Seek Better Oversight of Salt Mines

By LITTICE BACON-BLOOD | April 15, 2013

Lawmakers are looking to prevent a repeat of the massive Assumption Parish sinkhole that officials say was caused by a collapsed underground salt cavern – and make sure prospective property owners know what may lie beneath the ground before they buy.

The proposed laws filed by four legislators whose districts include the sinkhole area would halt permits for new salt mining operations; limit the reuse of storage caverns after a disaster, such as the development of a sinkhole; mandate regular mapping and monitoring of sites; and impose stiffer fines for noncompliance.

The 13-acre sinkhole was discovered in August and resulted in the evacuation of 350 residents from 150 homes between the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou area, about 40 miles south of Baton Rouge. Those residents have not been given the all-clear to return because of continued safety concerns. Many are seeking buyouts or settlements from Texas Brine Company, the Houston-based firm that mined the cavern.

“The goal is toward more transparency on where they’re located, where they’re located especially next to homes,” said state Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part. “Unfortunately, the Bayou Corne incident is setting a precedent as to what we don’t want to happen anywhere else.”

One of St. Germain’s bills would require that property owners notify buyers if the property is located near a salt dome or storage cavern. The contract could be voided if the seller fails to disclose that information.

According to the state Department of Natural Resources, there are 120 salt domes located throughout the state and about 270 solution mine caverns, 50 of which are no longer used.

A salt dome is a large, naturally occurring underground salt deposit. Companies drill on the dome’s outskirts to create caverns in which to extract brine that is used in the petrochemical refining process, or for storage of such things as hydrocarbons, which the age-hardened salt prevents from seeping into the ground.

The cavern failure in Assumption Parish released oil and natural gas, which authorities are continuing to monitor. A concentration of explosive gas was found under two houses and a shed in April.

Bayou Corne resident Dennis Landry, who describes his community as a “paradise on the bayou” and his home about a half-mile from the sinkage as being “ground zero,” said he isn’t ready to bail.

“We’re concerned, but we’re not shaking with fright,” said Landry, who estimated about 50 families remain in their homes despite the evacuation order. “Although others are, we’re still hanging in there.”

Down the street from Landry, Tim and Kathryn Brown have created a colorful motif in their front yard that they say serves two purposes: marking the passing of each holiday that the sinkhole exists and relieving tension.

It started with Christmas. Now, the trio of wooden alligators stands holding hymnals, their gaping mouths stuffed with bunnies in keeping with Easter. At their feet is the Visqueen-made sinkhole ringed by a cypress moss levee that includes colored plastic eggs and two signs posted on opposite sides.

“Life on Bayou Corne – Priceless!” and “Texas Brine Sinkhole – Stinkhole!” A stuffed skunk is perched on top of the latter sign.

“It keeps your nerves from getting shot,” Kathryn Brown said with a laugh. “It keeps your blood pressure down.”

While he’s not familiar with all of the laws being proposed that seek to govern salt mining, Tim Brown said he’s glad to hear the Legislature is paying attention.

“They do need to better manage caverns and salt domes and maybe have more regulations to make owners manage it in a safer way,” he said.

Republican Sen. Fred Mills Jr. of Breaux Bridge has proposed legislation that would prohibit future drilling and storage in domes after a “catastrophic” event. That means the Assumption Parish cavern would be off-limits to further use if the bill passes.

“If an area has had one major catastrophe, that’s enough,” Mills said.

Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, has proposed a moratorium on new permits for drilling and storage domes that could have far-reaching implications for the state’s petrochemical industry, which relies heavily on the brine.

“It doesn’t affect existing permits, but it does affect existing corporations who may be looking to do future explorations projects like that,” Brown said.

Brown said his intent was to help get traction for homeowners affected by the sinkhole, and that he may amend the bill to remove the moratorium now that Texas Brine is in talks with residents.

Meanwhile, a pair of bills filed jointly by St. Germain and Sen. Rick Ward, D-Port Allen, would require stricter guidelines for monitoring and assessing areas around salt domes. Among other things, it calls for surveying salt dome formations every five years.

Officials say survey maps for the Assumption Parish salt dome were sorely outdated and didn’t reveal that the storage cavern was being mined too close to the edge of the dome, which caused the “unprecedented” side wall collapse.

A separate bill by St. Germain and Ward proposes to raise the maximum fine for violating state law from $5,000 a day to $32,500 a day.

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