Bayou Corne Waiting to start anew _lowres

Advocate file photo by BILL FEIG -- Looking south, a gravel ramp slopes down into the 32-acre Bayou Corne-area sinkhole on Wednesday, July 30 2014. The lake-like area on land leased to Texas Brine Co. was once a dense cypress forest, sitting over the edge of a huge underground salt desposit known as a salt dome. Underground mining by Texas Brine in a cavern carved inside the salt deposit caused the cavern to have a breach in its supporting wall of salt, shattering and shifting surrounding rock deep underneath this onetime forest as rock flowed into the cavern. The sinkhole, then about 1-acre in size, eventually appeared at the surface in early August 2012. That "slurry hole" of trees and muck was discovered two years ago Sunday, Aug. 3, in the early morning hours as a foul diesel smell permeated the air.

Texas Brine Co., beset by a series of lawsuits blaming it for the Bayou Corne sinkhole disaster, is seeking $100 million in damages from Occidental Petroleum Corp., claiming that the worldwide oil driller caused the now 31-acre hole in the south Louisiana swamp.

The claim, made Thursday in Assumption Parish through a series of suits filed in ongoing sinkhole litigation, puts forward a theory for the sinkhole’s beginning that tries to deflect any liability for Texas Brine and partly contradicts the official theory of the sinkhole’s appearance in early August 2012.

State scientists and a special panel of worldwide experts have said for more than two years that Texas Brine mined a salt dome cavern too close to the dome’s outer, supporting wall of salt. A breach opened up in that salt wall and allowed surrounding rock to flood into the massive underground cavity carved from the salt deposit, creating the sinkhole in the cypress swamp near Bayou Corne.

Texas Brine now says an oil well drilled in 1986 near that cavern and operated at the time under Occidental Petroleum’s ultimate say was mismanaged and triggered the cavern wall break that sparked the sinkhole.

“Oxy Petroleum’s alleged technical expertise did not deliver superior results,” the suits say, borrowing from some of Occidental Petroleum’s business rhetoric.

“Instead, it delivered the Bayou Corne sinkhole.”

James Garner, one of Texas Brine’s attorneys, said the $100 million and counting in damages is for Texas Brine’s costs that insurers have not covered.

The new suits put Texas Brine in the position of blaming the corporate parent, Occidental Petroleum, of its longtime business partner, Occidental Chemical Corp., in the failed salt dome cavern, known as Oxy Geismar No. 3.

Texas Brine has leased property over the Napoleonville Dome from Occidental Chemical and mined that cavern and others, in part, to supply brine to OxyChem’s plants in Geismar and elsewhere on the Mississippi River. Chlorine from the brine, a mixture of water and salt, is a critical feedstock for those operations.

Occidental did not immediately return an email for comment Thursday.

Texas Brine has been quietly making versions of this claim against Occidental and others involved with the oil well in court for nearly two years as Texas Brine has wrangled with the state, pipeline companies, landowners and a constellation of insurers seeking to recoup from Texas Brine hundreds of millions of dollars in losses over the sinkhole.

Texas Brine also has leveled the charge even as it did not dispute liability as operator of record with state regulators for sinkhole response and cleanup and with former Bayou Corne residents, most of whom have successfully settled suits or private negotiations to be bought out.

But the new court papers from Texas Brine, along with another batch filed recently against oil driller Adams Resources Exploration Corp., operator Browning Oil Co. and other parties involved in the oil well, provide the most detailed account yet of the history of the oil well, known as Hooker No. 1. The papers also raise allegations that Occidental Petroleum knew drilling too close to the salt dome posed a risk for the Texas Brine-managed caverns.

Those claims rely on internal letters and other documents that have emerged during discovery in the series of suits still pending in the 23rd Judicial District Court in Napoleonville.

Oil drilling on top of and along the perimeter of Gulf Coast salt domes has been going on since the infancy of the nation’s oil industry.

Louisiana’s first oil well was drilled near Jennings in 1901 and went into sediments on top of a salt dome. The solid deposits, which reach down tens of thousands of feet, trap oil and gas along the sides and tops of the salt.

State well maps actually provide a rough idea where many Louisiana salt domes are located because all the wells drilled around the salt deposits form a kind of outline.

Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, said he could not comment on the litigation but did say Texas Brine’s claim would seem unlikely because many salt domes containing caverns are ringed with wells without signs of similar trouble.

“This would be the only time we have seen this happen … anywhere in the world, for that matter,” Courreges said.

At the same, Courreges and many other officials have said the Bayou Corne sinkhole emerged in a way that has never been seen before.

Joe Brantley, the former majority shareholder in another company caught up in the litigation over the oil well, Mid-America Resources Corp., said his former company got out of the Hooker well before Mid-America ever handled it.

“What they’re trying to do is, they’re trying shake down everybody and get someone’s insurance to pay them money,” Brantley said of Texas Brine officials.

He said he sold his company in 2007.

But Texas Brine has unearthed a series of documents to bolster the claim that Occidental knew about the risks of drilling too closely to the salt dome and didn’t do enough to protect against them.

The original land lease for the oil well dating from the early 1980s says Occidental Petroleum had to be kept informed about all drilling activity and any damage to the salt would have to be recouped.

Texas Brine also turned up a January 1986 letter from an Oxy Petroleum geologist to an Occidental lawyer and top Texas Brine official James Tichenor Jr. saying “additional restrictions may be necessary to protect Texas Brine’s salt interest.”

Texas Brine says Occidental Petroleum had no additional restrictions on the well, though the company was informed about the well’s progress.

Texas Brine also charges that Occidental Petroleum should have known that oil and gas extraction would cause a pressure drop in the oil formation that posed a risk to the Oxy 3 cavern.

After years of sporadic extraction ended in mid-2001, Texas Brine claims a pressure difference of about 2,000 pounds per square inch existed on the salt wall standing between the depleted oil formation and the pressurized salt dome cavern.

About a year before Texas Brine plugged the well to the problematic Oxy 3 cavern, the Hooker oil well was plugged in May 2010, but Occidental failed to repressurize the oil formation with water or other fluids, Texas Brine says.

This lingering pressure difference combined with possible cracks in the salt that Texas Brine says the earlier oil well drilling caused — suggested by other unearthed documents — led the salt wall to break.

Officials with Adams Resources did not return messages for comment, while an official with Browning Oil referred questions to a lawyer who could not be reached by deadline Thursday.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.