A sinkhole in swampy Assumption Parish grew to 12 acres over the weekend, and officials said Monday they are monitoring the threat that another area nearby could liquefy into muck.
Lawmakers on the House and Senate natural resources committees received an update on the latest developments surrounding the sinkhole, which opened up in August near a community along Bayou Corne.
Scientists say the sinkhole formed after the collapse of an underground salt cavern operated by Houston-based Texas Brine, which extracted brine and piped it to nearby petrochemical facilities. The cavern failure released oil and natural gas from formations along the salt dome face. A salt dome is a large, naturally occurring underground salt deposit.
About 350 people living in the area have been under an evacuation order and many of them displaced for more than seven months, with no end in sight. Texas Brine officials said they were beginning to contact residents Monday to discuss buyouts and settlement offers for the 150 homes.
Troy Charpentier, a lawyer for Texas Brine, said home appraisals should begin by next week, after residents agree to the inspection visit. Within 30 days of the visit, the company expects to make an offer. If residents disagree with the appraised value, they will be offered non-binding mediation to try to come to terms, he said.
“We’ll sit down in the same room and try to work it out,” Charpentier said.
When asked by lawmakers, Charpentier assured them the appraisers were instructed to determine a property’s worth as of Aug. 2, 2012, the day before the sinkhole appeared.
Bruce Martin, vice president for operations for Texas Brine, said the company has paid out more than $4 million in weekly housing subsidies to residents to help them cope with the costs of their displacement.
State and Texas Brine officials said they continue to watch another nearby cavern owned by the company and don’t believe it’s a safety threat –for now.
The second cavern is closer to the edge of the salt dome than originally thought, and state agency leaders have drawn up a response plan in case it’s needed.
Gary Hecox, a geologist with CB&I, which has contracted with the state on sinkhole response efforts, said a second Assumption Parish sinkhole would not develop without warning, like the sinkhole that swallowed part of a Florida home with a resident in his bed.
“Any future collapse would be preceded by months of seismic activity,” Hecox said. “It is not collapsing right now. It is best as we can tell stable, but we are monitoring it every day.”
But Assumption Parish leaders worried the threat was more imminent.
“We are in a very serious situation,” parish Police Jury President Marty Triche told lawmakers, saying that tightened regulations were needed to monitor the caverns and to hold companies liable if those caverns fail.