Officials of Assumption Parish were monitoring a sinkhole near Bayou Corne, Louisiana, on Wednesday, when a stand of 40-foot cyprus trees suddenly began to list and, within seconds, disappeared beneath the surface of the swamp.
As captivating as the certain-to-go-viral video may be, the story of how the sinkhole came to be is even more remarkable.
Ground near Bayou Corne began to give way last August, following months of local seismic tremors and gas bubbling from the depths of the bayou. On the morning of August 3, 2012, a one-acre hole opened up, accompanied by the strong, unmistakable odor of crude oil. Upon order of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the tiny community of Bayou Corne was immediately evacuated.
In the year since, the sinkhole has grown in size from one to 28 acres. In places, it is estimated to be 750 feet deep, and some 350 residents of Bayou Corne remain displaced. According to scientists familiar with the underlying geology, subsidence could go on for years.
Obviously, this is no ordinary sinkhole.
A mile below the bayou sits a collapsing salt dome operated by Texas Brine, LLC, believed to be the cause of the sinkhole.
Earlier this month, on the first anniversary of the sinkhole’s appearance, the State of Louisiana filed charges against Texas Brine seeking reimbursement of $12 million incurred by the state to date, along with civil penalties and the future costs of repairing wetlands damage.
According to the lawsuit, “The conduct and operations of the defendants resulted in the brine mining of the salt cavern to the point that the cavern became structurally unstable, thereby causing the collapse of the cavern and damage to Louisiana’s waters, natural resources and the state’s Coastal Zone.”
Prior to the collapse, Texas Brine had been drilling for salts using a process that brings brine to the surface by injecting high-pressure freshwater into the salt cavern. Apparently, the company was unaware that it was drilling close to the edge of the salt dome, which happens to be surrounded by a layer of oil and natural gas.
In a comprehensive, must-read published earlier this month at Mother Jones, Tim Murphy describes Bayou Corne as “the biggest ongoing disaster in the United States you haven’t heard of.”