Is the Natural Gas Industry to Blame for the Toxic Sinkhole Devouring a Town in Louisiana?
Bayou Corne, Lousiana, is a town on the edge, as it continues its strange and curious journey as home to one of the largest growing sinkholes in the country. When the sinkhole opened up in the early hours of August 3, 2012, it spanned 325 feet and was hundreds of feed deep. Video of it swallowing 100-foot trees went viral; across the country, geologists struggled to explain what exactly was its cause, its speed and its implication. Conspiracy theorists are citing a relationship between the pit and the Gulf of Mexico some 50 miles south; others are citing the New Madrid fault some 450 miles north.
Now, more than a year after it first appeared, the Bayou Corne sinkhole is roughly 25 aces and still growing. Currently, it is roughly the size of 20 football fields, exhausting methane from deep inside its core. Residents are, to say the least, frightened. Dennis P. Landry, when speaking to the New York Times, captured the strange appearance with a single phrase that has since drawn attention: "I think I caught a glimpse of hell in it."
The sinkhole provides a literal threat—the image of the gulf widening and swallowing everything in its path is a dynamic image that gets to the heart of the threat in a more acute sense—but the bigger questions that has the environmentally minded worried is what the implications are of the flammable methane gas the sinkhole is firing upwards out of the pit, the backyards and the nearby swamp.
There are a bevy of theories at play. Some are citing the ancient ocean that much of Louisiana is known to sit atop, and saying that the more than 127 underground salt pillars, combined with the mud and rock that has accumulated since the collapse of western well wall that the Texas Brine Company built in the 1980s, has caused a vacated space that has freed once-trapped natural gas. In a strange way, the Bayou Corne sinkhole has come to represent some strange nexus between Louisiana's more mythic history and the South's more questionable environmental ethics.
For years, companies have used the space in the depths of the Louisiana water as a relatively useful spot to store propane, butane and natural gas, with a general disregard for the environmental ramifications of turning the salt domes into storage facilities. The ability to make salt water for the area's many chemical factories has been a major incentive; according to the NYT, they've punched into the dome and hollowed out 53 caverns.
Geologists are saying that the sinkhole will eventually stop growing, with some thinking the cut-off size will be roughly 50 acres, but are unsure how long it will take to get there. As a result, the state has imposed tough regulations on monitoring salt dome caverns in an effort to avoid future problems like this—though the strange confluence of events leading to the birth of the sinkhole have many thinking it's highly unlikely that such random acts of historical naiveté will merge again.