One night in August 2012, after months of unexplained seismic activity and mysterious bubbling on the bayou, a sinkhole opened up on a plot of land leased by the petrochemical company Texas Brine, forcing an immediate evacuation of Bayou Corne’s 350 residentsâ€”an exodus that still has no end in sight. Last week, Louisiana filed a lawsuit against the company and the principal landowner, Occidental Chemical Corporation, for damages stemming from the cavern collapse.
Texas Brine’s operation sits atop a three-mile-wide, mile-plus-deep salt deposit known as the Napoleonville Dome, which is sheathed by a layer of oil and natural gas, a common feature of the salt domes prevalent in Gulf Coast states. The company specializes in a process known as injection mining, and it had sunk a series of wells deep into the salt dome, flushing them out with high-pressure streams of freshwater and pumping the resulting saltwater to the surface. From there, the brine is piped and trucked to refineries along the Mississippi River and broken down into sodium hydroxide and chlorine for use in manufacturing everything from paper to medical supplies.
What happened in Bayou Corne, as near as anyone can tell, is that one of the salt caverns Texas Brine hollowed outâ€”a mine dubbed Oxy3â€”collapsed. The sinkhole initially spanned about an acre. Today it covers more than 24 acres and is an estimated 750 feet deep. It subsists on a diet of swamp life and cypress trees, which it occasionally swallows whole. It celebrated its first birthday recently, and like most one-year-olds, it is both growing and prone to uncontrollable burps, in which a noxious brew of crude oil and rotten debris bubbles to the surface. But the biggest danger is invisible; the collapse unlocked tens of millions of cubic feet of explosive gases, which have seeped into the aquifer and wafted up to the community. The town blames the regulators. The regulators blame Texas Brine. Texas Brine blames some other company, or maybe the regulators, or maybe just God.
Bayou Corne is the biggest ongoing industrial disaster in the United States you haven’t heard of. In addition to creating a massive sinkhole, it has unearthed an uncomfortable truth: Modern mining and drilling techniques are disturbing the geological order in ways that scientists still don’t fully understand. Humans have been extracting natural resources from the earth since the dawn of mankind, but never before at the rate and magnitude of today’s petrochemical industry. And the side effects are becoming clear. It’s not just sinkholes and town-clearing natural gas leaks: Recently, the drilling process known as fracking has been linked to an increased risk of earthquakes.
“When you keep drilling over and over and over again, whether it’s into bedrock or into salt caverns, at some point you have fractured the integrity of this underground structure enough that something is in danger of collapsing,” observes ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber, whose work has focused on fracking and injection wells. “It’s an inherently dangerous situation.”
The domes are not just harvested for their salt. Over the last 60 years, in the Gulf Coastâ€”and to a lesser extent in Kansas, Michigan, and New Yorkâ€”industry has increasingly used the sprawling caverns that result from injection mining as a handy place to store thingsâ€”namely crude oil, pressurized gases, and even radioactive materials. The federal government considers salt tombs in Louisiana and Texas ideal for the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The hundreds of salt caverns that honeycomb the substrata, as companies like Texas Brine take pains to point out, are mostly safe, most of the time. But when something goes wrong, the results are disastrousâ€”sometimes spelling the end for nearby communities. The dangers are myriad, from sinkholes to natural gas explosions to toxic-fume releases. Salt caverns account for just 7 percent of all natural gas storage facilities in the United States (although that number is increasing) but 100 percent of all major accidents, according to one industry analyst.
Bayou Corne residents need only drive a quarter mile down Highway 70 to see the worst-case scenario. On Christmas Day 2003, a methane leak from a Napoleonville Dome salt cavern storing natural gas forced residents of Grand Bayou, a neighboring hamlet, to evacuate. Dow Chemical, which owned the cavern, bought out the mostly elderly residents, leaving only concrete slabs behind. In places like Barbers Hill, Texas, similar leaks have turned once-thriving neighborhoods into ghost towns. A 2001 cavern leak in Hutchinson, Kansas, spewed 30-foot-tall geysers of gas and water and caused an explosion that left two people dead.
“I hate to say, but it’s not an unusual event,” says Robert Traylor, a geologist at the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state’s oil and gas regulator. “These things happen. In the oil business, a million things can go wrong, and they usually go wrong.”
But disasters like the one in Bayou Corne have done little to slow the growth of injection mining. Last spring, lawmakers in Baton Rouge pushed through a handful of modest reforms in response to the sinkhole, but the toughest regulations were knocked down by the chemical industry. New caverns continue to be permitted. It’s not a question of whether there will be another Bayou Corneâ€”but where, and how big.