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Issue #1608      August 28, 2013

That sinking feeling

There’s a big, gaping hole in this story: specifically, a sinkhole. In Bayou Corne, Louisiana, it’s an ongoing environmental disaster that first emerged in August 2012. Three hundred and fifty residents were forced to evacuate; initially, they were confused. Then it came to light that the sinkhole opened up on land leased from a petrochemical company, and things – unfortunately – made more sense.

The land was leased to the company Texas Brine by its landowner, the Occidental Chemical Corporation. That company was operating there through a process known as injection mining; activists, however, might refer to it as irresponsible tampering with the environment for the purpose of extracting a resource – in this case, saltwater.

It was nothing new. But what happened afterwards was. The operation involved hollowing out the land, which was effectively a giant salt deposit, and establishing “salt caverns” there, which helped pump saltwater to the surface and send it off to refineries to be used in manufacturing paper and medical supplies. Then, after some odd seismic activity, one of the salt caverns collapsed.

The resulting sinkhole was about an acre wide – initially. Now, it covers about 24 acres and is roughly 750 feet deep. It often devours wildlife and cypress trees, and ensures the continued exile of Bayou Corne’s former residents. Stinking oil has also been known to bubble to the surface, and gases have seeped into a nearby aquifer.

Of course, one can be sure that neither Texas Brine nor Occidental has been charged with disrupting 350 lives, because corporations are increasingly considered to be above the law.

Ecologist Sandra Steingraber noted that this type of mining presents “an inherently dangerous situation. When you keep drilling over and over and over again, whether it’s into bedrock or salt caverns, at some point you have damaged the integrity of this underground structure enough that something is in danger of collapsing.”

As hydrologist Jim LaMoreaux added, companies like Texas Brine are too busy trying to “not go over a certain budget and a certain time frame” with these operations, and don’t bother to do a proper survey of the environment. These companies, he said, cut corners and fail to commission the proper studies.

Last week – finally – the state of Louisiana filed lawsuits against Brine and Occidental for damages stemming from the cavern collapse. Activists fear the result will be little more than a slap on the wrist for these companies, as so recently occurred in the case of BP, for its negligence in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Mother Jones described this incident as “the biggest ongoing disaster in the United States you haven’t heard of.” But the people of Bayou Corne are all too familiar with this event, which has permanently altered their lives.

“We just feel that the place is not ever going to be what it once was,” said former resident Bucky Mistretta. “It was just a beautiful, pristine place on the bayou. And now that’s gone, and we just wouldn’t feel safe about what’s underneath us.”

People’s World

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