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The Bayou Corne Sinkhole: A New Test for the Gulf Region's Post-Deepwater Strategy?

by Chris Evans, UMN Law Student, MJLST Executive Editor

Thumbnail-Chris-Evans.jpg Less than 200 miles from the site of 2010's Horizon Deepwater blowout, another environmental disaster threatens a community in the Gulf Coast region. In early August, 2012, a massive sinkhole opened up beneath the Bayou Corne near a small residential community in Assumption Parish, Louisiana. Filled with brine, oil, and natural gas, the sinkhole has since grown to 8 acres, forcing the evacuation of 300 residents, and officials apparently don't know when (or if) the area will again be habitable.

Assumption-Parish-Sinkhole-large.jpg

Below the Bayou Corne, the country's largest independent brine (used in a variety of industrial processes) producer, Texas Brine, had been removing brine from an underground salt cavern for over twenty-five years up until June 2011, when it plugged the cavern. Texas Brine also, with the permission of Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, deposited naturally-occurring radioactive material in the cavern. The USGS has determined the collapse of the cavern caused the sinkhole. Although Texas Brine has been working with authorities to monitor and remedy the disaster, the company sought an injunction against an order to drill new wells to install additional monitoring equipment. Texas Brine dropped that lawsuit when Louisiana agreed to instead require the company to perform 3D seismic imaging to evaluate the cavern.

This unprecedented disaster and the torpid response by state officials and Texas Brine is an example of what Daniel Farber called the Gulf region's "witch's brew of chronic environmental harm, acute pollution, and threatened communities." In The BP Blowout and the Social and Environmental Erosion of the Louisiana Coast, Farber described the threats to the region posed by both the Deepwater oil spill and the chronic unpreparedness of the region for such catastrophes.

Farber notes hopefully that "the acute crisis of the spill has helped mobilize attention to the Gulf, which may help catalyze responses to the Gulf's chronic ills." Indeed, in October 2010, President Obama established the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force to develop a regional response to the Deepwater spill, which it released in December 2011. The strategy--one of several post-Deepwater reforms discussed by Farber--is built around four main goals: restore and conserve habitat, restore water quality, replenish and protect living coastal and marine resources, and enhance community resilience.

The Bayou Corne sinkhole has remained mostly unnoticed by national media, so despite its impact on the local community and lack of historical precedent, this disaster is unlikely to mobilize new attention to the Gulf region. But Bayou Corne presents a useful test for the Restoration Task Force's strategy: can this framework help mitigate the effects of the sinkhole? The strategy's focus on the coast, the Gulf, tourism, fishing, and oil and natural gas drilling make it a less than optimal source of salvation for the unusual problem of the Bayou Corne sinkhole. But displaced residents would be wise to tap any available Deepwater-related resource aimed at the region. Even if the Deepwater-inspired reforms provide no relief for Bayou Corne, local pressure will improve the state, regional, and federal framework for dealing with (or preventing) the next disaster