UPDATE:

1/4/12– Bayou Corne sinkhole is still a local, not state or national, problem.  The Parish Sheriff is left responsible for a potentially very dangerous situation.  See video, here: http://www.klfy.com/story/19990672/assumption-sinkhole

Back in mid-August, national news covered briefly what ABC News called a “mysterious sinkhole” that had opened up in an Assumption Parish, Louisiana wooded area dotted with gas, brine and waste storage wells.  150 people were evacuated from the rural area surrounding, amid fears of possible explosions and radiation. People are still evacuated, the sinkhole is growing, and it is still “mysterious” what is going on there, but that is not a national news event.  And, meanwhile, it is murky what level of governmental oversight is being deployed to monitor conditions, which continue to deteriorate. In the direction of additional petrochemical storage within the salt dome area.

We can be pleased that some of our nation’s best geophysicists have been called in to consult, from the Sandia Lab and the USGS– as per this from Phys.org:

The sinkhole opened up overnight on Aug. 2 off the western edge of the salt dome near Bayou Corne….  The USGS, which is known for its seismic expertise, already had been keeping an eye on the area because of harmonic tremors that began in June, along with gas bubbling up at seven different locations in the wetlands of Bayou Corne and nearby Grand Bayou. “What they were seeing was some sort of fluid movement through fractures, which they thought might be the natural gas that was bubbling up in the bayou,” Borns said.
Authorities first thought the source might be a broken pipeline, but all pipelines checked out. Then they started exploring whether something was happening within the caprock or surrounding sediments where natural gas comes from. The harmonic tremors continued for about six weeks but stopped after the sinkhole formed. Since then, only small seismic events continue to be recorded near the cavern under investigation, Borns said.
The cavern was developed for brining operations, in which companies dissolve salt to extract chlorine for use as a precursor for petrochemicals, he said. On Aug. 22, the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness formally asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu for help from Sandia. The Labs previously worked on cavern collapse and sinkhole formation problems on Weeks Island, La. Borns said Sandia experts are called in once or twice a year to study similar concerns.
Although, the thought of these scientists “consulting” does not reassure the residents of the area.  A local blog, Louisiana Sinkhole Bugle asks “Why Aren’t There More People Working On The Sinkhole Problem?

Here are just some of the things they are noting:

  • No ‘live data’ available to the public from the site.
  • Very little manpower at the sinkhole.
  • No outside help is requested via blogs or teleconferencing from other experts.
  • No inquiry into relationship between the sinkhole and the BP disaster.
  • No concern about the cypress tree die off for miles around.
  • Ignoring evidence  the Bayou Corne sinkhole affects events (bubbling, fires etc.) in other parishes.
  • Admitting they are in unknown territory intellectually but not asking for outside help.
  • Having federal agency experts on site but not telling the public.
  • Knowing this is a possible national emergency or event and pretending it is a parish concern only.

The response does, in a way, remind one of the BP disaster.  The local news was reporting that state officials were hopeful of an answer to the question “what the heck is going on?” would come “soon”  back in late September, just about four months after gas was found to be bubbling from the surface of the land:

Nearly four months after bubbling was first discovered in the waters of Bayou Corne, state officials are hopeful this will finally be the week they get answers to the question of what caused the sinkhole….The answer to just what caused the sinkhole may come this week as crews from Texas Brine have now begun the diagnostic phase after drilling into the cavern over the weekend.

Answers, however, did not come… instead, more land fell off into the sinkhole.

So, are they calling in the Marines?  Or, who do you call when the land is subsiding mysteriously, falling into a growing hole, there are methane bubbles erupting all over the place on land and in swamps, and salt dome storage wells full of gas, poison brine, and toxic waste are located right nearby? Can Al Qaeda please take credit for this, so we can get some help here?

The oil and gas industry is exempt from most ordinary federal monitoring requirements, such as the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (which some environmentalists are currently suing the EPA over). For some local residents, waiting for government or industry to solve the problem seems futile, as property values and home sale prices in the surrounding countryside sink with the sinkhole:

Grand Bayou resident Randy Rousseau said the disaster is the last straw for him.

“I don’t feel comfortable here. I don’t feel safe. I don’t think this will get any better. The sooner I can get out of here, the better,” he said.

He’s had to evacuate three times previously. That includes when the town was evacuated on Christmas day in 2003 for 50 days when natural gas began leaking up from a salt dome storage cavern and bubbling up into water wells.

In an eerie parallel to the BP disaster, the company is drilling more wells (“when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”), while government insists that it come up with a plan by, oh, a couple of weeks from now:

Two new drilling wells are being installed near the Bayou Corne sinkhole site. SHAW has already installed three wells east and west of the site and will be putting another one on its property not far from there.

Assumption Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness officials say the wells will be used to vent off more gas…… The Department of Natural Resources Commissioner has ordered Texas Brine to present a plan and timetable to the state by November 13.

However, there may be a US military investigation going on, concurrently, to determine what, exactly, is going on underground in Louisiana.  That is related to more mystery– a huge explosion (or, according to eyewitnesses, a series of as many as 10 explosions in rapid sequence) near Camp Minden. Camp Minden has acknowledged, after a long search, finding an underground weapons bunker that had exploded– which would explain the 1.5 mile-high smoke cloud that formed and was noticeable on radar.

The image shows a plume developed over Camp Minden at 11:28 pm. The NOAA says the debris/smoke plume rose nearly 7,000 feet into the air. The plume then traveled to the northwest at 10 miles per hour, slowly dissipating with time. The plume continued to disperse as it approached the Webster Parish, Bossier Parish border. By 12:05 am Tuesday, the plume had completely dissipated.

Webster Parish Sheriff Gary Sexton says hazmat experts tell him the underground bunker contained explosives, and worked exactly as it was designed to do. Sexton describes the bunker, in the “L-1 area,” as an “igloo,” constructed of concrete. He said they were built in the 50s. The underground bunkers are designed to send any blast up instead of out to lessen the shock wave impact.

Authorities have not said yet what kind of explosives were stored in the bunker. No one was injured, and the investigation continues.

Physicists are cited by some sources suggesting that it is entirely possible that venting methane– from the aquifer that the Camp Minden area shares with Assumption Parish– set off by a meteorite, could have set off a chain reaction of explosions:

At least ten powerful explosions Monday night at Camp Minden after a meteor shower have raised many questions, including whether Louisiana’s sinkhole area aquifer explosive-level methane could have traveled north where hit by a meteorite causing the blasts, a possibility according to a physicist and an astrophysicist interviewed by Deborah Dupré Friday. Heavier meteor showers are predicted this weekend.

“If there is enough methane in the air, just about anything (like a rock hitting another rock, causing a spark) could ignite explosions,” physicist Steve Knudsen said in an email Friday.

What agency of our government is responsible for protecting us from the dangers of methane hanging in the air, where “just about anything” might turn it explosive?  Currently, the Louisiana State Police are on the Camp Minden case:

Louisiana State Police say it could weeks or even months before the cause of the blast at Camp Minden on Monday is known.

State officials say hazmat crews began collecting photo evidence from the scene on Tuesday to send to the Hazardous Materials Unit in Baton Rouge, where they’ll comb through them to try to determine what caused the powerful blast.

“It’s extremely detailed,” explains Louisiana State Police Trooper Matt Harris. “….You want things done right, especially with explosive materials and stuff like that.”

If they find the bad guy, we can all feel more secure.  Unless, of course, the bad guy is methane made unstable underground by extreme extraction activities, and all the salt domes available to try to contain it have been over-drilled and are leaking methane, themselves, as well as subsiding to below sea level.   There may not be a jail space available.

State and local officials have been answering some questions, though.  Yes, the gas bubbling up is being compared to the gas that is being drilled for in the area– but those tests won’t be ready for weeks.
On the bright side, there would be nothing like a bubble of methane exploding over Louisiana to ignite that other kind of shale gas bubble, the one on Wall St.  Read about that one being about ready to blow here: US Shale Gas Bubble is Set to Burst.

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