NAPOLEONVILLE — In early June, after months of heavy rain, water inside the levees around the Bayou Corne sinkhole sat 7 inches from overtopping an overflow weir built into an earthen berm.
The levee was constructed in the first year after the sinkhole appeared in early August 2012 to prevent the hole’s most harmful contents, including briny water and, at the time, oily hydrocarbons, from spilling into and harming surrounding swamp and bayous.
On June 3, two days after the 2015 Atlantic hurricane season began, Texas Brine Co. sent the state Department of Environmental Quality an urgent request for an administrative order to discharge sinkhole water into the Bayou Corne waterway and possibly nearby Grand Bayou, as well.
There was a time when the sinkhole would suck down water into an underlying aquifer but as the sinkhole has settled, the path has sealed off, the company said, and water was now building up inside the berm.
The company argued the slow discharge of cleaner, fresher water found at the top of the sinkhole would avoid a catastrophic failure that could allow far saltier water deeper in the sinkhole to escape into the freshwater cypress swamp. Texas Brine wanted the water to be released without any treatment due to the water quality but the water would be monitored.
“Unless some affirmative action is taken soon, TBC believes that an uncontrolled discharge of the water within the sinkhole containment area appears to be not only likely but also imminent,” Bruce Martin, Texas Brine vice president of operations, warned.
A little more than three months later, after a summer dry period dropped water levels in the sinkhole by about 9 inches, DEQ has not yet decided on Texas Brine’s request but is still mulling it over. DEQ officials went before the Assumption Parish Police Jury on Wednesday for members’ thoughts and got a respectful but firm answer: Find another way.
Tom Killeen, DEQ Inspection Division administrator, described the implications of a catastrophic levee failure: As much as 150 million gallons of sinkhole water — possibly mixed with saltier water from the sinkhole’s depths — would rush into the swamp if a breach allowed up to 3 feet of water to flow out.
The primary bowl of the sinkhole is about 31 acres, but the series of containment levees cut through the swamps south of La. 70 contain a total of 117 acres, Texas Brine has said.
Killeen said DEQ officials believed a slower, controlled release of fresher water at the surface of sinkhole — as an emergency contingency only — would be a better option than a major failure. Repeated testing showed water quality at the top of the sinkhole was as good as water outside the levees and low in salinity. Modeling showed Texas Brine could discharge 1 million gallons per day into Grand Bayou without exceeding water quality limits, Killeen said.
Police Juror Booster Breaux pointedly noted that Texas Brine spent a lot of money to build the levee in the first place.
“They want to spend x number of dollars to put a pump and cross it just over the levee and disperse into the natural waterway. To me, that’s ludicrous,” Breaux said.
Jurors cast about Wednesday for other methods of disposing of the sinkhole water, such as injection wells or reusing the water in Texas Brine’s mining operations. But state officials were concerned about injecting water in the vicinity of the fractured geology near the sinkhole. Shipping the water to existing injection wells could require heavy trucking, Texas Brine has noted.
In the June 3 letter to DEQ, Martin, the Texas Brine vice president, raised reusing sinkhole water for salt dome mining but wrote then the company was talking with an unnamed customer about the water’s suitability.
John Boudreaux, director of the Assumption Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, told jurors Wednesday that he spoke with officials at Occidental Chemical Corp., one of Texas Brine’s primary brine customers. Oxy officials told him the water contains bacteria known to corrode piping and other metal equipment.
“So they’re very concerned with using that water and destroying their systems,” Boudreaux said.
“What’s that going to do to the sac-a-lait in the bayou?” Bob Deaton, an avid fisherman who lives in Bayou Corne, jumped in.
Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche told Killeen jurors favored Texas Brine finding another method of disposing of the water, such as through a pipeline to injection wells, instead of discharging into the bayous with monitoring but no treatment.
“Given all that’s happened, we’re just very distrustful and concerned about that,” Triche said. “Ultimately, it’s your decision, but the parish is on record, I think, pretty much saying we would not favor that. We’d like to see some other alternatives explored. It might be a little more expensive for them, but that’s a problem they have to bear.”
Killeen said he will report back to his superiors with the jurors’ sentiments. After the meeting, Killeen said DEQ has not decided whether to continue to pursue an administrative order or the full water discharge permit process.