BAYOU CORNE, La. -- Work around the Assumption Parish sinkhole is at a standstill now, after two cracks in the containment berms around it appeared.
Seismic activity has been increasing over the past week, an indication that it may be getting ready to swallow more land.
The sinkhole is an unprecedented disaster that still has 150 homes under a mandatory evacuation order.
It continues to grow and change, and just when the company that many blame for causing it starts to think they have a handle on it, it sucks more land and trees in.
“My wife comes and sit on the back porch and cry. I just feel so bad for her,” said Roy Giroir, one of the many people still under an evacuation order more than a year after the sinkhole first appeared.
They had just added the porch to the back of their retirement home right before the nearby sinkhole changed their lives in the summer 2012.
“Unsettling. Not knowing what to do. How much longer is it gonna be? asked Giroir’s wife, Ethel Gaudet.
Their Bayou Corne home is packed up and they've been living in a trailer on other land they own for the past six months.
They decided to get out when they started hearing more about the odorless methane and hydrogen sulfide gases that were bubbling up all around them.
“How to you go to bed at night and know if you get up in the night and flick the switch on, suppose gas leaks? There's too many uncertainties. Just too many,” Gaudet said.
In recent months, Texas Brine installed vacuum venting stations next to their garage. The fear is gas can leech up through the foundation and collect under the roof. Any spark and it could explode. The vacuum stations are supposed to suction the gas from the foundation and burn it off.
“I'm not sure they know what kind of system they want or how it's gonna work,” Giroir said, reflecting on the many ways Texas Brine has tried to stabilize the neighborhood and remove the natural gas that has been released from the collapsed cavern.
Texas Brine is the company believed to be responsible for the salt cavern collapse deep in the earth that is causing the sinkhole at the surface.
“In the early days of the response, we were randomly installing relief wells. As a consequence, we were not very effective,” said Mark Cartwright, president of United Brine Services, a subsidiary of Texas Brine.
The gas still bubbles in the sinkhole itself. You can see it when you stand along the man-made berms surrounding the sinkhole. It looks like a large, dark lake with remnants of cypress trees in it.
Texas Brine said new technology is giving them a better idea where pockets of gas are underground, so they're starting to install two new vent wells in one of the Bayou Corne neighborhoods. “The indications are right now that there's not a large volume of material that is sinking at depth. So, we think we may be close to stability,” Cartwright said.
After we shot an on-camera interview with Cartwright, seismic activity spiked again, causing Texas Brine to once again halt any work around the sinkhole. Previous burps have always been precipitated by increases in seismic activity.
It’s how Assumption Parish Emergency Management Director John Broudreaux managed to catch one of the sinkhole’s “burps” on camera in August.
“It has been estimated to be as much as 26 acres [in size]. That is an estimate because of the concerns of that east side and the measurements and not putting anyone in jeopardy. That area is no longer being surveyed so that is only an estimate now,” Boudreaux said.
One of the initial concerns with the stability of the area was an old mining cavern that is used to store the potentially-explosive chemical butane. It's 1500 feet from the sinkhole, and the company that operates the cavern, Crosstex, removed much of the butane as a precaution when they first suspected a cavern collapse in 2012.
The company has consistently maintained the collapse is not a threat to the butane cavern because at the depth in which it’s stored, the pressure puts it in liquid form. They insist something would have to propel it out of a damaged well head in order to cause a flashover, or explosion, according to records maintained by the Department of Environmental Quality.
You can read more about Crosstex’s “Worst-case scenario” report here.
State regulators never required them to remove the butane from the nearby cavern, and they haven’t put a halt to its use, despite the fact that scientists and regulators still don’t seem to know how stable the collapsing cavern is.
The latest fly-over video taken by Assumption Parish officials on Oct. 29 shows how expansive the sinkhole has become.
Scientists from all over the world have been studying it, but no one seems to know what is really going on underground. While they make presentations to the community every so often, the state's scientists with contractor CB&I and even an expert at LSU wouldn't do an interview with us about it.
“Unfortunately with an unprecedented event, there's no book to open to see what the end will be,” said Boudreaux.
For the residents, like Roy and Ethel, all the unknowns make it so much worse.
“At 67 we're starting all over again,” Roy Giroir said.
The couple has retained an attorney and they're a part of the class action lawsuit in federal court. 66 of 150 homeowners have accepted buy-out offers from Texas Brine.