The sinkhole that led residents to abandon the Louisiana town of Bayou Corne first opened on August 3, 2012, as a “slurry hole” the size of a tennis court. The cave-in announced itself with a massive burp of diesel oil coming from below the earth.
Seven years later, residents I spoke with remember waking to the diesel smell, which gave them headaches and made them vomit. Over the course of the next several years, the hole grew steadily as the ground continued to subside, belching oil and swallowing whole trees like a subterranean monster in a bad science-fiction movie. It became a 40-acre expanse of polluted water, its surface big enough to fit the roof of the New Orleans Superdome four times over. A mile-deep cavern had given way, after decades of industrial salt mining had enlarged it past the point of structural integrity. The odor came from the layer of diesel known as a “fluid blanket” that is routinely used to protect cavern roofs from groundwater erosion — although this cavern failed not at its roof, but far underground.
The sinkhole seems like a parable for the shoddy way that industry has treated Louisiana’s fragile wetlands.
The sinkhole’s ruthlessness, as it shook the ground and sucked down trees, leaving an oily mess behind, still seems to some observers like a parable for the shoddy way that industry has treated Louisiana’s fragile wetlands and the banks of Mississippi River, which over the past century have become one of America’s major energy corridors.
“It’s what we have allowed for years: manmade pollution and destruction of natural resources in Louisiana,” Lt. General Russel Honoré told me. 1 Honoré is well-known throughout the state for having arrived in New Orleans as commander of the U.S. Army’s Joint Taskforce Katrina in 2005, when he took charge of a grim and chaotic situation in the city where FEMA’s disaster response had lagged badly after the hurricane. In 2012, outraged by what was happening in Bayou Corne, Honoré founded an environmental alliance called the GreenARMY, seeking to address not only the sinkhole but pollution, along with saltwater intrusion caused by the lattice of oil-company canals dug into coastal zones.
According to Honoré, the company that operated the Bayou Corne mine, Texas Brine, should never have begun work; their permit was approved despite an initial determination that the site was risky. “The state of Louisiana told them they didn’t have confidence in them drilling there. But they drilled anyway. How can an LLC from Texas find a way around a drilling permit? It goes to show how industry can come to Louisiana and we don’t hold them accountable.”
Understanding the catastrophe of the sinkhole requires, in turn, an understanding of salt’s role in the petrochemical industry. Salt is extracted by injecting high-pressure streams of freshwater into naturally formed dome-shaped deposits. The dissolved salt is brought to the surface as brine and sent by pipeline to processing plants. Brine from Bayou Corne went to the town of Geismar, to one of more than 150 facilities along the 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River known as Cancer Alley. There it was broken down into chlorine and hydrogen gas. Louisiana produces nearly 40 percent of the nation’s chlorine, and round-the-clock shifts at other Cancer Alley factories crank out PVC plastic, vinyl, and fertilizer. At night, towering flares and smokestacks are visible for miles — both the pride and the scourge of the state. Photos of this scene have been slapped onto covers of Chamber of Commerce reports about the vigor of local economies, and used in environmental exposés regarding the dangers of industrial air pollution.
Fifteen miles west of the Mississippi, Bayou Corne is peaceful and green, seemingly a world away from heavy manufacturing. No one died here at the sinkhole in the swampland half a mile out of town; no homes were consumed, and — fortunately — contamination hasn’t reached the freshwater bayou itself.
Yet the place has witnessed deep environmental loss. When Virginia Hanusik took these photographs, in 2018 and 2019, Bayou Corne had been largely abandoned for years. Tall grass surrounds empty houses and concrete slabs where houses used to sit, and few residents remain to explain how events unfolded. Most left hours after the cave-in was discovered, when Governor Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency and Assumption Parish officials issued an evacuation order for the roughly 159 homes. 2 The sinkhole itself is mostly hidden by cypress swamp. “If someone came back to life and walked back into Bayou Corne, they might wonder what happened to the community,” says Mike Schaff, who lived in the hamlet for 25 years, launching his boat from his backyard to fish for bass, perch, alligator garfish, and the sought-after crappie that South Louisiana fishermen call sacalait.
Seven years ago, before the ground gave way, neighbors in Bayou Corne had seen unusual bubbling in the surface of the bayou. In some areas, it looked like a pan of water boiling. In others, the water appeared almost effervescent, “like Alka Seltzer in a drinking glass,” Schaff says. Townspeople called state agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environmental Quality, to report the bubbles, the small sinkholes that developed in backyards, and the tremors they felt as they lay in bed at night.
Schaff recalls that fellow residents made their first reports to authorities in May 2012 — around the time his grandkids were getting out of school. Oil and gas companies checked pressure in the pipelines that run underground here. They found no leaks, and government and industry inspectors chalked up the disturbances to natural phenomena. Though that may seem ridiculous in hindsight, it is not uncommon for methane, or “swamp gas,” to bubble up from bayous and lakes.
Townspeople called state agencies to report the bubbles, the small sinkholes that developed in backyards, and the tremors they felt as they lay in bed at night.
It’s not clear why there wasn’t more scrutiny, early on, of the cavern as a possible source for the bubbling and shaking. Texas Brine’s spokesman maintains that he is unable to say exactly how the company responded during the period, because those responses are subject to ongoing litigation; “Texas Brine did not know the cause of the sinkhole,” the spokesman told me, “until a very exhaustive multi-year data-collection-and-analysis effort was completed by experts from around the world.” In a class-action lawsuit settled in 2014, lawyers for the company argued that the sinkhole was an “unprecedented disaster” because it involved a mid-cavern collapse. (Most collapses occur when the top of a dome falls, which is why roofs are typically coated with diesel.)
Displaced residents believe, however, that the disaster could have been averted if authorities had paid attention to the warning signs, which got more ominous as the summer of 2012 wore on. Neighbors chatting in yards or between boats remember talking about the episode in 2003 in the nearby town of Grand Bayou, when a leak from a ruptured well casing in a salt cavern sent up 30-foot geysers of natural gas and forced an evacuation on Christmas Day. They worried that something similar might be in store for them.
“Here are two communities within a few miles of each other,” says Honoré. “And they experience two incidents not many years apart where companies caused a manmade disaster, basically because they were effing around in a salt dome with little oversight.”
Grand Bayou and Bayou Corne sit on a salt deposit called the Napoleonville Dome. In sedimentary basins along the Gulf Coast, deep layers of salt deform under geologic pressure and thrust upward in columns through weaker layers above. People around the world have been mining such domes for centuries, at least since the Mughal Empire in the 16th century.
When salt is extracted from a dome’s core, a lining of impervious salt crystals is left behind. In Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, some of these hard-walled caverns are used to hold emergency fuel for the federal government’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. In other caverns, such as the one at Grand Bayou, companies store oil, gas, and other petroleum products, as well as hydrogen and compressed air. The cavern at Bayou Corne was not a petroleum-storage area; it was just a salt mine, though it went down 6000 feet, far deeper than the typical 2000 feet.3
People living closest to manmade environmental disasters in Louisiana are often told as little as possible by the companies that cause the problems.
A company named Vulcan Materials opened the site in 1976, and sold it in 2005 to Occidental Chemical, which rechristened the cavern Oxy3. Texas Brine worked under both owners, beginning to drill at Bayou Corne in 1982. They closed Oxy3 in 2011 after it failed to maintain air pressure during a mechanical integrity test — indicating that cavern walls had likely been compromised. This proved right: inside the cavern, a too-thin salt lining gave way to unstable rock behind it. The rock fell, knocking open naturally occurring pockets of oil and gas of the sort that are often trapped next to salt domes. Mud, brine, and crude brewed together under intense subterranean pressures for nearly a year, until locals reported the first tremors — warnings that the mixture was expanding upward.
Even as they lose homes and jobs and endure poor health, people living closest to manmade environmental disasters in Louisiana must frequently rely on hunches or their own observations to understand what’s going on, because they are told as little as possible by the companies that cause the problems. In this case, too, as court testimony made clear, administrators knew that Oxy3 had been considered unstable from its early days. In 2018, a state judge found that Texas Brine, along with Vulcan Materials and Occidental Chemical, had ignored warnings about the cavern’s instability dating back to 1976, and had put “economic concerns over environmental and safety concerns.” 4
Life changed overnight for those in Bayou Corne. Some returned after the 2012 evacuation only to pack their belongings. Others, like Schaff, flouted the evacuation order and moved back for a while. It was an uneasy period. Beyond worries about sinkhole expansion, Schaff said, there were concerns about the methane released by the collapse, which was infiltrating the shallow aquifer that supplied local drinking water. “If there was gas in the house and you flipped a light switch, it could ignite,” he explains. “So those of us who stayed all had gas monitors set to a low level” — to detect even a trace of methane. “That way, you could get out before the house blew up. I kept a suitcase packed, just in case. I wouldn’t let my grandkids come over anymore. I couldn’t have family reunions at my house either. I didn’t want people to come into that situation.”
By the time the class-action suit settled in 2014, almost all the residents had moved. Some suits remain pending, but 88 families accepted the settlement; they say little about the terms except that no one got rich. Honoré is more pointed about the lawsuit. “It was an embarrassment,” he says. “The lawyers got as much for settling the case as the people who lost their homes.” Texas Brine ultimately paid $20.6 million for homes. Still, Honoré argues, prices were far lower than they should have been. “The people who lost their homes were not paid replacement value. They were paid current value, after property values had sunk. Who wanna buy a house next to a sinkhole? A house that was empty because its owners had been evacuated?”
In the 25 years he lived in town, Schaff says, everybody who died suddenly in Bayou Corne died of cancer.
The Louisiana legislature now requires injection drillers to leave a wider margin at salt-cavern perimeters. But other government bodies have hedged the truth about the sinkhole’s origins. Subra’s organization noted in 2014 that a key DEQ draft document about Bayou Corne repeatedly described the sinkhole as a “manmade disaster area.” The phrase appears nowhere in DEQ’s final version, however. Texas Brine lobbied successfully to have it removed, alleging that “no definitive cause of the cavern failure had been determined and agreed upon.” 5
Schaff and his neighbors used to spend Mardi Gras morning pulling decorated boats behind their cars in an annual parade they called the Krewe of Hookers, in a bawdy reference to fishing. “My house wasn’t much — it was the neighbors that made it special,” he tells me. He keeps in touch with those friends on Facebook; in 2015, he too signed his house over to Texas Brine and moved 150 miles north. He’s also fighting kidney cancer and a sarcoma in his leg.
In the 25 years he lived in town, Schaff says, everybody who died suddenly in Bayou Corne died of cancer. “We didn’t have heart attacks,” he says. “It was all cancer. Maybe it was something in the ground. So maybe it wasn’t a bad thing for me to move from there.”