Bayou Frack-Out: The Massive Oil and Gas Disaster You’ve Never Heard Of

Bayou Frack-Out: The Massive Oil and Gas Disaster You’ve Never Heard Of by Mike Ludwig, December 6, 2012, Truthout
For residents in Assumption Parish, the boiling, gas-belching bayou, with its expanding toxic sinkhole and quaking earth is no longer a mystery; but there is little comfort in knowing the source of the little-known event that has forced them out of their homes. … The first sign of the oncoming disaster was the mysterious appearance of bubbles in the bayous in the spring of 2012. For months the residents of a rural community in Assumption Parish wondered why the waters seemed to be boiling in certain spots as they navigated the bayous in their fishing boats. Then came the earthquakes. The quakes were relatively small, but some residents reported that their houses shifted in position, and the tremors shook a community already desperate for answers. State officials launched an investigation into the earthquakes and bubbling bayous in response to public outcry, but the officials figured the bubbles were caused by a single source of natural gas, such as a pipeline leak. They were wrong. On a summer night in early August, the earth below the Bayou Corne, located near a small residential community in Assumption, simply opened up and gave way. Several acres of swamp forest were swallowed up and replaced with a gaping sinkhole that filled itself with water, underground brines, oil and natural gas from deep below the surface. Since then, the massive sinkhole at Bayou Corne has grown to 8 acres in size. On August 3, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a statewide emergency, and local officials in Assumption ordered the mandatory evacuation of about 300 residents of more than 150 homes located about a half-mile from the sinkhole. Four months later, officials continue to tell residents that they do not know when they will be able to return home. … The Bayou Corne sinkhole is an unprecedented environmental disaster. Geologists say they have never dealt with anything quite like it before, but the sinkhole has made few headlines beyond the local media. … Geologists and state officials now believe that Texas Brine’s production cavern below Bayou Corne collapsed from the side and filled with rock, oil and gas from deposits around the salt formation. The pressure in the cavern was too great and caused a “frack out.” Like Mother Nature’s own version of the controversial oil and gas drilling technique known as “fracking,” brine and other liquids were forced vertically out of the salt cavern, fracturing rock toward the surface and causing the ground to give way.

“In the oil field, you’ve heard of hydraulic fracturing; that’s what they’re using to develop gas and oil wells around the country ...”What is a frack-out is, is when you get the pressure too high and instead fracturing where you want, it fractures all the way to the surface,” said Gary Hecox, a geologist with the Shaw Environmental Group, at a recent community meeting in Assumption Parish. Texas Brine brought in the Shaw group to help mitigate the sinkhole. As the weeks went by, officials determined the unstable salt cavern was to blame for the mysterious tremors and bubbling bayous. Texas Brine publically claimed the failure of the cavern was caused by seismic activity and refused to take responsibility for the sinkhole, but the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has since determined that the collapsing cavern caused the tremors felt in the neighborhood, not the other way around. According to Hecox and the USGS, the collapsing cavern shifted and weakened underground rock formations, causing the earthquakes and allowing natural gas and oil to migrate upward and contaminate the local groundwater aquifer. Gas continues to force its way up, and now a layer of gas sits on top of the aquifer and leaches through the ground into the bayous, causing the water to bubble up in several spots. Gas moves much faster through water than oil, which explains why the bubbles have not been accompanied by a familiar sheen.

From 2005 to 2009, Assumption Parish had the seventh highest breast cancer rate among Louisiana’s 64 counties, according to the National Cancer Institute. Romero is concerned about radioactive material that was produced by Texas Brine’s mining operation more than a decade ago. In 1995, Texas Brine asked state authorities for permission to dump “low amounts” of soils containing underground radioactive material into the cavern that is now collapsed. The “naturally occurring radioactive material,” also known as NORM, had accumulated in soils near the well pad as part of the brine production process. Texas Brine’s Cranch said there was a “serious discussion” about storing the NORM in the cavern, but that never happened. Instead, he said, the company left the material near the wellhead and above ground, as allowed by state law. Cranch said NORM has a “low level” of radiation and a “low half-life.” “This stuff is everyday stuff,” Cranch said.

On November 27, the sinkhole had a “burp,” according to observers. Crude oil and woody debris rose to the surface, as water from a nearby swamp was seen flowing into the sinkhole. The “burp” roughly coincided with seismic activity recorded by the US Geological Survey. The sinkhole continues to shift and settle, as do the fractured rocks below it, regularly causing tremors and micro-earthquakes observed by seismic monitors. Shaw Geologist Gary Hecox believes the sinkhole may increase in diameter, and observers have found that the depth of the sinkhole has decreased from 490 feet to 140 feet. At a public meeting in mid-October, Hecox told evacuees that there is a considerable amount of subterranean material that has yet to be accounted for and may continue the frack out. … On December 1, Louisiana Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh fined Texas Brine $100,000 for failing to meet several deadlines for the cleanup effort. The company failed to install a containment system at the sinkhole to prevent contamination of nearby waterways by a November 16 deadline, Welsh said. Texas Brine also failed to meet deadlines for installing methane monitors in nearby homes and establishing a number of vent wells to burn off natural gas in the aquifer and other underground formations. The company is also under state to orders to pay a weekly $875 stipend to each evacuated household. Vent wells set up by Texas Brine are now burning off the natural gas that contaminated local aquifer. Like flaming torches, pipes connected to the aquifer let flames fly into the open air as the gas makes its way out of the groundwater. One vent well removing gas from the aquifer can burn about 46,900 cubic feet of gas per day. [Emphasis added]

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