Three bills to tighten regulations on salt domes won final passage and are headed to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk as Louisiana lawmakers respond to a 15-acre sinkhole in Assumption Parish that forced 350 residents out of their homes.
Jindal was expected to sign the bills.
Sponsors of the measures said they should help prevent similar disasters by requiring stricter guidelines for monitoring and assessing areas around salt domes. That includes surveying salt dome formations every five years, and stiffer penalties for violations.
“We made sure that we didn’t rush through and that we had the bills that we needed,” Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, said Wednesday. “I’m pleased.”
A salt dome is a large, naturally occurring underground salt deposit. Companies drill on the dome’s outskirts to create caverns to extract brine 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.
According to the state Department of Natural Resources, 120 salt domes are located throughout the state. There are about 270 solution mine caverns, 50 of which are no longer used.
St. Germain called a measure by Sen. Rick Ward, D-Port Allen, the “hammer” because it includes penalties for noncompliance. She said her bills aim to ensure there are “absolute rules and regulations in the statute.”
Ward’s bill would authorize daily fines against companies if they are issued a cease and desist order and fail to take corrective action; if the state has to respond to an incident caused by a violation; and if a violation is found to be caused by willful neglect that causes severe environmental damage.
The Assumption Parish sinkhole was discovered in August and resulted in the evacuation of residents from 150 homes between the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou areas, about 40 miles south of Baton Rouge. Those residents have not been given the all-clear to return because of continued safety concerns.
Officials said survey maps for the salt dome were outdated and didn’t reveal that the underground storage cavern was being mined too close to the edge of the dome. Officials have said that’s what caused the sidewall collapse and created the sinkhole.
Some property owners have been offered buyout settlements from Texas Brine Co., the Houston-based firm that mined the cavern.
Two tougher bills stalled in the Senate and couldn’t reach final passage before the legislative session ends Thursday. The proposals would have severely restricted drilling and the awarding of permits for salt dome operations.
A bill by Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, was rejected twice by the Senate when it came up for a floor vote.
Mills’ proposal sought to limit new permits for salt mined caverns and storage facilities in any area where there had been a man-made structural failure. Some criticized the bill as too broad, even after Mills amended it to restrict the expansion prohibition to Lake Peigneur in Iberia Parish.
Meanwhile, Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, proposed a moratorium on new permits for drilling and storage domes that would have had far-reaching implications for the state’s petrochemical industry. That proposal never moved out of committee.
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