New safety rules since massive sinkhole prevent Texas Brine from expanding salt cavern operation; company files suit against Dow _lowres

 

A 29-year-old Dow Chemical Co. salt cavern sits so close to Texas Brine’s property that new state safety regulations — created after the 2012 Bayou Corne sinkhole disaster — now prevent the Houston company from mining any new caverns on its property, a federal lawsuit alleges.

Texas Brine Co. has sued Dow and a local land company over the Dow cavern carved from the Napoleonville salt dome in Assumption Parish.

“Dow is obligated to (Texas Brine) for the value of the salt that (Texas Brine) can no longer mine, or ‘dead salt,’” the suit claims.

The suit, which also names Clifton Land Corp. as a defendant, was filed April 7 in U.S. District Court in New Orleans.

The 31-acre lake-like sinkhole in the swamp has prompted a series of lawsuits, displaced nearly an entire community of 350 people and now appears to be causing business repercussions for some companies that have relied for years on the Napoleonville dome’s salt.

Occidental Chemical Corp., Texas Brine’s longtime brine customer and partner in the salt dome cavern that likely failed and triggered the sinkhole, is looking for new salt sources, a parish official said.

Three wells Texas Brine developed and mined on Occidental’s and its predecessors’ behalf near the sinkhole — the land is owned by Occidental and leased to Texas Brine — are irreparably damaged or not in operation.

John Boudreaux, director of the Assumption Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said two other caverns that Occidental relies on near the sinkhole that are mined by another company, are also under heavy scrutiny since the sinkhole’s formation. They are known as Occidental 9 and 10.

Boudreaux said that because of the testing required since the sinkhole formed, Occidental officials told him that they were having a hard time finding enough brine for their plants in Taft and Geismar.

The brine from salt dome caverns is important for Occidental and other chemical manufacturers because the salt supplies chlorine and caustic soda, critical raw materials used in the production of plastics, pharmaceuticals and other products.

The area in dispute in Texas Brine’s lawsuit is one of the few spots in the 1-mile-by-3-mile area still left to be developed. The area, which is along the salt dome’s southern flank south of La. 70, was eyed by the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve in the early 1990s for the nation’s emergency oil supply, a Sandia National Laboratories study says.

The study, however, raised questions about the level of development already on the dome, future subsidence in the swampy area and the amount of usable salt really available due to geological questions. SPR never developed caverns in the Napoleonville dome.

Texas Brine’s alleged loss of salt would be in a more centrally located part of the dome, which is more certain to have more salt. New state rules created since the sinkhole now require caverns be at least 100 feet from their neighbors’ property lines and that brine caverns be at least 200 feet apart.

Dow sent Texas Brine a letter in mid-February, saying its cavern, which is no longer being mined, is 1 foot from Texas Brine’s property. Because of that, Texas Brine claims it cannot mine 199 feet of salt on its north property line.

If Texas Brine were to mine a new cavern, it would be the first new one to be created since the sinkhole and would likely draw heightened scrutiny from the public and regulators, according to Boudreaux and a state listing.

Boudreaux and Patrick Courreges, a Louisiana Department of Natural Resources spokesman, said last week that no one has submitted an application for a new cavern on the dome.

Occidental spokesman Eric Moses declined comment Friday on the lawsuit. Texas Brine officials said “the suit speaks for itself,” and declined further comment.

Dow spokeswoman Stacey Chiasson also declined comment last week.

Companies like Texas Brine drill deep into Gulf Coast salt domes, pump in millions of gallons of fresh ground water and create a brine for customers.

Over time, this kind of salt mining leaves behind massive underground cavities. While companies mine the salt as a raw material, enough salt must be left to support the caverns.

State scientists say one of these giant Texas Brine-operated brine caverns was mined too closely to the outer face of the Napoleonville dome, and eventually the salt was breached. The opening deep underground allowed surrounding rock and sediment to pour into the cavern and create the sinkhole.

The incident prompted state rules to be rewritten to ensure enough salt encases brine caverns.