BAYOU CORNE, La. -- The Assumption Parish sinkhole is a lot like a living, breathing thing. More than 200 days after it mysteriously started swallowing up the swamp, hundreds of residents are still under a mandatory evacuation order.
Geophysicists say the cavern that caused the sinkhole at the surface is still collapsing, leaving Bayou Corne residents wondering if there will ever be an end in sight.
Bayou Corne has always been a peaceful place. Spanish moss dangles from the trees and inlets that lead to Grand Bayou are intertwined with the streets like a braid.
Most of the homes are situated with a bit of the bayou in their backyards, and that’s exactly why most residents called the area home.
“We could drop the boat right there to go fishin. It was just like a paradise,” said former Bayou Corne resident Jamie Weber.
Weber decided to move hear family out last fall. A sign on her old home says “Evaucated: Thank you Texas Brine."
She had no idea that she was putting her mobile home on land on top of an underground salt dome. The Napoleon Salt Dome is full of caverns that have been mined to make brine, or salt water. Other caverns on the dome have been used to store hazardous, potentially explosive gasses, like Butane.
Geophyisicists now say the western side of one of the brine caverns is collapsing, filling in from deep in the Earth, causing the sinkhole at the surface to expand and contract.
“On Oct. 25, we moved out of our home when we finally found a rent house because they had put a vent well a hundred yards from my house,” Weber told a joint legislative committee at a hearing on the sinkhole at the State Capitol last week.
She and some of the 350 evacuated Bayou Corne residents packed the Baton Rouge hearing looking for answers.
Many of the ones they keep getting are conflicting and confusing, especially from the state and the company that once mined the collapsing salt cavern Texas Brine.
“The cause of the sinkhole is the subject of pending litigation. At this point, I don't think it's proper to have any discussion about what the cause is and whether we accept what anyone has said regarding the cause of the sinkhole,” Troy Charpentier, an attorney for Texas Brine, told the committee.
The secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources flat-out testified at the same hearing, “The cavern collapse led to the sinkhole and created a path for the natural gas to come to the surface.”
But Secretary Stephen Chustz slipped out a backdoor, with his press secretary only offering an interview with himself after the hearing without giving us the chance to ask him any questions.
One of those questions: What caused the cavern to collapse?
“The sinkhole is constantly changing. It changes every time we go out there. Not just on the surface, but in the sub-surface,” said Gary Hecox, a hydrogeologist with CB&I, formerly the Shaw Group, who is a consultant for the state about how to best handle the sinkhole.
He said it's uncharted territory.
“The cavern was 3,400 feet deep, which is deeper than any known cavern failure impacting the surface in the international record,” Hecox said.
Nowhere in the world has a brine cavern this large collapsed, and Hecox said the data shows it's not finished yet.
“We still have 450 feet to fill. How long is it gonna take to fill this up? At one foot per day, we're still looking at an event that's gonna run over a year,” he said.
Every time it shifts, recently installed seismic monitors pick up tremors like little earthquakes. When it does, big bubbles of natural gas, vegetation and crude oil are released to the surface. They call it a "burp".
“It appears that the sand and gravel that's in the bottom of the sinkhole breaks up a large gas bubble into many small bubbles just like an aquarium,” Hecox continued, “That is a good thing. Because if you get a single bubble up and have an ignition source you can have a flash over.”
A flash over is an explosion, like the kind you can see if you leave the gas on too long before lighting a propane grill. But Hecox said a large natural gas bubble from the sinkhole lit by any ignition source could mean major damage on the surface.
Instead those little bubbles are coming out all around the actual sinkhole site in the form of bubble sites in the bayou. Twenty new bubble sites have been spotted in the last month.
Nine months after the first ones surfaced, Texas Brine started installing vent wells to alleviate the pressure underground.
A drive down Hwy. 70 will show you several of them burning around Bayou Corne.
“We continue to install relief wells as fast as we can and will continue to do so as they continue to be effective,” said Bruce Martin, vice president of Texas Brine.
But in recent weeks, some of the residents who stayed behind, and are living in the area at their own risk, noticed some problems that are typically invisible to the naked eye.
Bubble sites popped up in neighborhoods that are typically dry during flooding after a recent rain storm. It caused Wilma Subra, a chemist with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, to raise a red flag with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
“A house acts like a tent. So, if it's migrating up through the soil, and it's being caught in the house, it's building up concentrations in the house. And then if it reaches explosive level, then one little spark in the house would set it off,” Subra said.
One of the residents who has stayed behind, Nick Romero, also testified before the legislative committee. He now has five DEQ monitors installed in his house to measure natural gas and other chemicals.
“We have had our grand kids and now we can't. I love to fish. And now I don't want to,” he told the committee members, choking back tears.
The residents are struggling not just with the instability underground, but in their lives.
“Once they told us that they wanted to put monitors in our house and that we'd have to live like, to me, like lab rats, to me, that was no way for my kids to grow,” Weber said.
Many feel forgotten, Weber said. Especially by Gov. Bobby Jindal. The governor has yet to visit the sinkhole site or publicly talk about it.
“He's promoting plants around the area, chemical plants. And he was in the area and he wouldn't, still to this day does not acknowledge it,” Weber said.
In October and November of 2012, Jindal announced two chemical plant expansions a few miles from Bayou Corne, one in nearby Geismar and one in Donaldsonville.
But in six months, he’s made no visit to the sinkhole site.
“Where is he? Where is Jindal? He's all over the United States, but he can't come forty minutes south of Baton Rouge and visit,” Weber asked.
As photos from the Louisiana Environmental Action Network show, when the sinkhole first appeared, it was just 400 feet in diameter. As of mid-February, it had swallowed nine acres.
Scientists say the worst-case scenario is it could swallow 40 acres.
Even if it does, many, like Weber, are now just hoping Texas Brine will buy them out so they can move on.
The company told residents that they are working to stabilize the area before tackling buy outs because some residents are still hoping to return.
Lawmakers are planning another joint hearing on the sinkhole March 18.