By J. Kojo Livingston
The Bayou Corne sinkhole is growing…faster.
The sinkhole that was a grave concern when it was the size of a football field is now the size of the Superdome in New Orleans.
The sinkhole that caused explosions and odors and forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents had now expanded by 12 acres in the course of a weekend to the tune of rumblings, tremors and giant smelly gas bubbles coming from underground. The escaping gas is being burnt to avoid a massive explosion.
The recent “growth spurt” was enough to draw Governor Piyush “Bobby” Jindal who finally visited the site after seven months of silence on the issue. Jindal had a closed-door meeting with residents. Over 350 people have been evacuated from the area since last August, leaving about 150 homes vacant. The fate of these families has been the source of controversy and question.
The Louisiana Weekly spoke with environmental lawyer Monique Harden of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR), a group that takes on corporate and governmental polluters that target Black and low income communities.
Harden is not pleased with the state of affairs. “It’s ever-expanding. We’re at that place where the companies are trying to minimize their liability. Eventually they are going to realize that they are going to have to relocate and pay the price for the properties that are ruined by the sinkhole. You see this kind of closing down of information on the part of Texas Brine, the company responsible for creating the sinkhole. More lawyers are hovering around looking for folks that haven’t yet signed with an attorney or have some claim that’s related that attorneys haven’t gotten to just yet. That’s the game being played right now; how big will the liability be? How big will the payout be? The payout can come through a settlement agreement or a judgment.”
The stalling that both the state and Texas Brine have done present a special and unfair hardship on the evacuees, according to Harden. “It’s a real problem for people who have small children this is my home only place we’ve called home for years. Families in that situation are in a real dilemma. They don’t have the resources to pick up and go someplace else and wait for this thing to resolve itself and compensation to come later down the road. This is not just a holding pattern they could be sitting on dynamite really because that sinkhole formation is like this organic beast that is growing and can form underneath those homes. It’s a real bad situation for a company to just be thinking about its bottom like at this particular time.”
Harden says the root of the problem is not the corporations but a government that lacks a strong commitment to environmental protection. “The government is trying to circle the wagons around itself to try to prevent any further exposure or liability. Ultimately, we have a very broken system for environmental protection. You can allow a company to go underground, to mine for materials that it needs for production and take no responsibility for the consequences and you would allow it in a place where people live, where children are playing. This is their piece of paradise in Louisiana. And it really is if you could see what it looked like before the sinkhole. It was very green, lots of trees and coverage with cottage type homes dotted around. It was a nice place to live and call your home before Texas Brine decided to drill there.”
Harden says there is a growing national movement to demand environmental justice. “These folks and like many other folks in Louisiana and around the country are waking up to realize that because we have this broken system of environmental protection it could cost me my life or my health or what I’ve invested in my future or my children’s future in property and a home.”
Jindal told the crowd that the state would put pressure on Texas Brine to pay a fair price for their homes. Other relocation assistance was not discussed. No timetable was set but Texas Brine is supposed to begin contacting families this week.
“The fairness of the compensation is extremely important. It’s supposed to be to make a person whole again, a family whole again. It’s not to cheat them or reduce your liability so you can look good to your investors but to pay them what you have taken from them,” says Harden.
While Bayou Corne may be the biggest sinkhole in US history, it is only one of many that occurred where salt mining was done. In this process oil and other dangerous chemicals are stored in underground or underwater salt domes, which are natural formations.
This article originally published in the April 8, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.
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