A Metaphor in the Sinkhole

In August 2013, Tim Murphy at Mother Jones described the sinkhole at Bayou Corne as “the biggest ongoing disaster in the United State that you haven’t heard of.”

That was already a year after the sinkhole had first appeared. Writing for the Daily Kos, Jen Hayden offered the following overview:

“One night in August 2012, after months of unexplained seismic activity and mysterious bubbling on the bayou, a sinkhole opened up on a plot of land leased by the petrochemical company Texas Brine, forcing an immediate evacuation of Bayou Corne’s 350 residents—an exodus that still has no end in sight. Last week, Louisiana filed a lawsuit against the company and the principal landowner, Occidental Chemical Corporation, for damages stemming from the cavern collapse.

“Texas Brine’s operation sits atop a three-mile-wide, mile-plus-deep salt deposit known as the Napoleonville Dome, which is sheathed by a layer of oil and natural gas, a common feature of the salt domes prevalent in Gulf Coast states. The company specializes in a process known as injection mining, and it had sunk a series of wells deep into the salt dome, flushing them out with high-pressure streams of freshwater and pumping the resulting saltwater to the surface. From there, the brine is piped and trucked to refineries along the Mississippi River and broken down into sodium hydroxide and chlorine for use in manufacturing everything from paper to medical supplies.

“What happened in Bayou Corne, as near as anyone can tell, is that one of the salt caverns Texas Brine hollowed out—a mine dubbed Oxy3—collapsed. The sinkhole initially spanned about an acre. Today it covers more than 24 acres and is an estimated 750 feet deep. It subsists on a diet of swamp life and cypress trees, which it occasionally swallows whole. It celebrated its first birthday recently, and like most one-year-olds, it is both growing and prone to uncontrollable burps, in which a noxious brew of crude oil and rotten debris bubbles to the surface. But the biggest danger is invisible; the collapse unlocked tens of millions of cubic feet of explosive gases, which have seeped into the aquifer and wafted up to the community. The town blames the regulators. The regulators blame Texas Brine. Texas Brine blames some other company, or maybe the regulators, or maybe just God.”

In the intervening months, the company has determined that a side wall of the salt cavern has collapsed, something that was previously thought an extremely remote possibility.

The sinkhole’s expanding to swallow large trees and pieces of ground along its edges is what made the video that brought it to national attention go viral. But the broader danger is that the sinkhole may release millions of cubic feet of methane gas that will almost certainly ignite and create a fireball of enormous proportions.

In “The Sinkhole That Swallowed a Swamp,” an article published in The Verge, Adrianne Jeffries concludes with the following observations:

“Toward the end of September, the Bayou Corne response team had a small breakthrough. The 3D seismic images finally came out, revealing two very deep reservoirs of gas that were likely feeding the methane leaks. The findings showed there is also a lot more gas in the aquifer than the 45 million cubic feet previously estimated, but the conclusion was the same: it could take years to get rid of all the gas.

“Even after the gas is cleared and the sinkhole stops growing, scientists will have to keep monitoring the area for decades, says Courreges, the state analyst. ‘While it was a man-made action that started this, it’s geology and natural forces that are making everything happen,’ he says. ‘And geology happens slow.’”

Regulations will not prevent all disasters, but it is very difficult to argue that deregulation does not escalate the risk-taking that almost inevitably leads to disasters.

Or at least it would be very hard for someone to make the case for deregulation if the viral video of the Bayou Corne sinkhole were running in a loop on a screen behind them.

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