Hole in Bayou Corne: A Cause for Concern

A couple of days ago a friend of mine and I decided to embark on a fateful trip. We had heard that not far from our current location, (a fisherman’s meeting about the BP settlement, near New Orleans), a sink hole approximately 200 feet wide had formed and that it was threatening a nearby bayou community.

According to our sources, the depression was forcing the evacuation of 150 families.

Never known to be in our right minds, we decided to go see the hole and perhaps talk to a few community members being affected.

As we traveled down Hwy 70, we chatted about a similar event which happened November 20, 1980, on Louisiana’s Lake Peigneur, in which a Texaco oil rig had drilled into a salt mine, draining the rig, the lake, water bound vessels, several surrounding buildings and 65 acres of Jefferson Island land into the shaft below.

The sinkhole now forming in the community of Corne Bayou was similar, we discussed, since that area also sits upon the remnants of an abandoned salt mine once operated by the Texas Brine Co., LLC. 

After traveling for an hour or so, we were unexpectedly met with a stench that could best be described as that which you might experience standing near the northern end of a southern bound diesel truck. Oddly, that smell was a few miles prior to the Assumption Parish community of Corne Bayou, to which we were heading.

As we pondered the source of the stink, our eyes were treated to the bounty that is Louisiana Bayou country – namely, bald cypress trees, eloquently draped with moss, rooted in shallow swamp waters, populated by migratory birds and, of course, refinery pipelines.

In fact, not far from our destination we were welcomed by a slew of refineries, standing like iron cities against the backdrop of the soon to be setting sun. And, as is usually the case, atop the highest point of each and every one roared a gas flare that reached perhaps two stories into the air – silently we quickly gave each other glance of bewilderment, having moments before passed through the distinct odor of gaseous vapor.

The concern was exacerbated by a quick internet search that had explained that Bayou Corne had been the recent location of “natural gas inexplicably bubbling up,” from its waters. In a July article published by the Advocate, the mysterious bubbling was being investigated by state and parish officials.

Of course, not being scientists ourselves, we could only wonder if natural gas still has the inclination to be flammable.

It wasn’t long before we came upon what was obviously a command post for the unfolding disaster. Trust us, after years of hurricanes, followed by an oil spill, we have become well acquainted with all the tell-tale signs of a “command post” – the over-sized camper trailers with Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality scrawled across the side, the overabundance of police cars, and 10 to 20 humans standing in a group, drinking coffee and scratching their heads.

We tried to look like ignorant passer-byes as we crossed the bridge over Bayou Corne, eager to see the hole ourselves without the pesky advice of the authorities.

However, within a few seconds, there were three aligned cop cars on our tail. In a move that would have made Greg Palast proud, we pulled over and slipped the voice recorder to the “on” position. Yet, we were soon to find out that our preparation for hard hitting under cover journalism was unnecessary, when all three cars sped past us, parking about a half a mile down the road.

As we neared their stop spot it was clear that their intention was to block the highway to travelers coming into the area. Slowly we inched past in order to make a quick turn-around, with hopes of re-entering the zone before the blockade saw horses could be arranged.

That was when we met the most informational folks on our journey – a 12-year-old kid and his friend, who were cruising the neighborhood in a golf cart.

They were eager to share with us the location of the slurry filled perforation, a photo acquired from Facebook, and an account of a small hole one of them had witnessed form in his uncle's yard that day.

When we asked if his uncle had reported the earthly breach, the boy just shrugged nonchalantly and told us, “Nah, my uncle just threw some dirt off in there.”

After leaving our new friend, we decided to go back to the mobile command site, speak to the authorities and get their take on the situation.

Press pass in hand, we were immediately directed to John Boudreaux, who is the Director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for Assumption Parish.

Boudreaux told us that the current concern was for a 400 foot section of a natural gas pipeline retained by Crosstex Energy – owners of the largest intrastate pipeline system in Louisiana, whose “line has shifted.”

“It's what we call compromised,” he explained, “It sunk 16 foot, and shifted to the east 15 foot.”

However, he quickly added, there were “no leaks, no loss of pressure, and they are currently in the process of depressurizing the natural gas, which is mostly methane.”

But, and just in case, they were in the process of closing Hwy 70 and evacuating 150 households.

He added that, as of yet, the Red Cross shelter that had been set up nearby was empty, since most families had found a place to stay with nearby relatives and that the entire event was being monitored closely by a collaboration between the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, the LDEQ, state police, the Governor’s office, the Assumption Parish Sheriff and other neighboring sheriff’s offices.

Not able to give us much more of his time, we thanked him and wandered back toward the car, eager to at least get a few shots of the evacuated community before sundown.

The problem was, besides the kids, we kept running into people. Both sides of the bayou held tied off houseboats which appeared to be inhabited. One fellow waved to us from the other side of the water, while yet another stood fishing from the pier.

We decided to talk to the fisherman, and get his take on the bubbling, sinking bayou. The friendly guy greeted us with a handshake, casting his line low as he explained that he had heard that the hole had formed via a telephone call from his mother, but that he wasn’t too worried about it. He added that the fish were still biting and that he had driven into the area earlier that day with no concerns.

The fisherman was not alone in his lack of worry, in a same day newscast by Baton Rouge local news station WBRZ, many residents had decided to defy the order to leave.   According to the accompanying article, local resident Dennis Landry explains, “Most people are realizing there’s nothing we can do about it.” 

We later learned an open-ended stay at the local middle school is the only option for folks without family or friends in the area.  Families are not being offered compensation to pay for hotels or campgrounds.
As for the fisherman, we would have spoken with him more, except that when we mentioned the road closing, he threw his cigarette into the water, grabbed his things and headed for his truck - no doubt worried he might get stuck sleeping on the dock. We too decided we had better try and see if we would be able to leave the evacuation area, mainly since it was getting to dark to see a hole anyway.

As we made our way up to the road block which was now in full force, we took a moment to make a special note of a small trailer of helium sized containers set off a few feet from the side of the road, which were clearly marked “flammable,” and gave each other that look again. 

As the sun dropped below the horizon, and an also smoking policeman waved us through, we pondered the predicament of Bayou Corne and wondered aloud if authorities were taking the possible threat as seriously as the situation might warrant.

Especially since the Louisiana Environmental Action Network was reporting that in addition to the “more than a dozen areas near Belle Rose, LA, in and around Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou,” has recently had the “waters rolling from escaping methane, ethane, and propane,” local residents have also reported experiencing tremors and  houses shifting.

I guess we shall see what we see in Bayou Corne. Is this another disaster unraveling on the Gulf Coast, courtesy of the ever-reliable fossil fuel industry?  Or is just, in the words of John Boudreaux, “what we call compromised"


Cherri Foytlin is a journalist, oil worker's wife, mother of six, and Louisiana resident whose family has been deeply impacted by the BP Oil Disaster and consequential moratorium on deep water drilling. She co-founded Gulf Change, blogs for www.BridgeTheGulfProject.org, and walked to Washington D.C. from New Orleans (1,243 miles) to call for action to stop the BP oil disaster. She has been a constant voice, speaking out to the Obama Administration's Gulf Oil Spill Commission, and in countless forms of media. Cherri will continue her fight for the industries, people, culture and wildlife of south Louisiana and the Gulf Coast "until we are made whole again."