NAPOLEONVILLE — The Assumption Parish Police Jury invited the Louisiana House and Senate Natural Resources committees on Wednesday to meet jointly in Pierre Part to try to resolve issues swirling around state government’s response to the parish’s 8.5-acre swampland sinkhole emergency near Bayou Corne.
The move came during a discussion between jurors and state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, focusing on how such a joint meeting would allow residents to hear from the state Department of Natural Resources and other agencies on the record.
“So, it’s to accommodate the people that can attend those meetings so they can hear what’s said,” Harrison told the jurors. Harrison serves on the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
Jurors’ approval of the resolution capped a round of emotional discussions between jury members and evacuees that also led jurors to seek advice on possibly seeking a federal disaster declaration in response to both the sinkhole situation and on nonrenewal letters some evacuated residents have received from their homeowner insurance providers.
In addition to inviting a visit from the House and Senate committees, jurors also agreed to send a letter to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness asking the agency to send a representative to a Feb. 6 community meeting in Napoleonville to discuss the implications of declaring the sinkhole a federal disaster.
The resolutions came after heated and tearful comments about whether further federal oversight is needed.
Some people at the meeting repeated long-standing calls for buyouts of residents who want to leave.
The discussion also laid bare divisions among Bayou Corne residents about the quality of responses they are seeing from state agencies as well as residents’ perceptions of the future habitability of the area, whatever Texas Brine and state agencies may be able to accomplish in restoring the area to its pre-sinkhole condition.
Gov. Bobby Jindal has long since declared a statewide emergency, but a recent movement drawing attention from some residents seeks the federal declaration. A petition seeking federal emergency status for the sinkhole has been filed on the White House website making such an appeal.
By 4 p.m. Wednesday, the petition, filed Jan. 5, had 1,925 signatures. It needs a total of at least 25,000 signatures by Feb. 4 to prompt a response, the White House website says.
Sinkhole activist John Achee, 34, of Labadieville, spoke to the jurors about asking Jindal to seek the federal declaration.
“Most of us have zero confidence in any of the state agencies, DNR, (Office of) Conservation, DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality). I don’t know if these guys are corrupt, incompetent or both,” said Achee, whose family has a camp in Bayou Corne and who runs a Facebook site about the sinkhole.
“Their resources are inadequate to handle this situation,” Achee said.
Police Juror Henry Dupre took issue with Achee’s description of the state agencies as corrupt and incompetent, saying he, Dupre, had concerns about what federal intervention would mean.
“I have utmost confidence of the people on the job now. Granted, it took too damned long, but it’s going good now,” Dupre said.
Police Juror Booster Breaux told Achee that he was sick and tired of people such as Achee constantly criticizing the response to the crisis, saying what happened is beyond people’s control and knowledge.
“You just can’t wave a magic wand and fix the problem in Bayou Corne. You just can’t do it. It would have been done the first day it happened,” Breaux said.
Later, Juror Jeff Naquin questioned how many people Achee actually was speaking for.
A woman in the audience shouted back: “A lot, a lot.”
Dennis Landry, who operates a boat launch and cabins in Bayou Corne, said Achee does not speak for everyone in the community and said he thought residents he has met with are fairly well satisfied with the response.
“We don’t want the federal government involved. We don’t need them, and actually they already know about this incident,” Landry said, adding the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection have been involved in dealing with the sinkhole situation.
That debate, coupled with uncertainties concerning what a federal declaration would mean for property owners, led to the call for advice from the Governor’s Office.
The sinkhole was discovered Aug. 3 in a swampy area between the Grand Bayou and Bayou Corne areas, touching off a nearly six-month and continuing evacuation of residents of the two communities.
Scientists believe a Texas Brine Co. salt cavern failed, causing emergence of the sinkhole and the related release of underground crude oil, natural gas and brine.