BAYOU CORNE, La. —
It was nearly 16 months ago that Dennis Landry and his wife, Pat, on a leisurely cruise in their Starcraft pontoon boat, first noticed a froth of bubbles issuing from the depths of Bayou Corne, an idyllic, cypress-draped stream that meanders through swampy southern Louisiana. They figured it was a leaky gas pipeline. So did everyone else.
About two months later, early Aug. 3, 2012, the earth opened up: a voracious maw 325 feet across and hundreds of feet deep, swallowing 100-foot trees, guzzling water from adjacent swamps and belching methane from 1,000 feet or more beneath the surface.
“I think I caught a glimpse of hell in it,” Landry said.
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Since then, almost nothing in Bayou Corne has been the same.
More than a year after it appeared, the Bayou Corne sinkhole is about 25 acres and growing, almost as big as 20 football fields, lazily biting off chunks of forest and creeping hungrily toward an earthen berm built to contain its oily waters.
It has its own Facebook page and its own groupies, conspiracy theorists who insist the pit is somehow linked to the Gulf of Mexico 50 miles south and the earthquake-prone New Madrid fault 450 miles north. It has confounded geologists who have struggled to explain this scar in the earth.
It also has split this unincorporated hamlet of about 300 people into two camps: the hopeful, like Landry, who believe things will eventually settle down, and the despairing, who have mostly fled or plan to, and blame their misery on state and corporate officials.
“Everything they’re doing, they were forced to do,” Mike Schaff, one of those who is leaving, said of the officials. “They’ve taken no initiative. I wanted to stay here. But the community is basically destroyed.”
Drawls Landry, who is staying: “I used to have a sign in my yard: ‘This too shall pass.’ This, too, shall pass. We’re not there yet. But I’m a very patient man.”
The sinkhole is worrisome enough. But for now, the principal villains are the bubbles: flammable methane gas, surfacing not just in the bayou, but in the swamp and in front yards and backyards across the area.
A few words of fantastical explanation: Much of Louisiana sits atop an ancient ocean whose salty remains, extruded upward by the pressure of countless tons of rock, have formed at least 127 colossal underground pillars. Seven hundred feet beneath Bayou Corne, the Napoleonville salt dome stretches 3 miles long and 1 mile wide — and plunges at least 30,000 feet to the old ocean floor.
A bevy of companies has long regarded the dome as more or less a gigantic piece of Tupperware, a handy place to store propane, butane and natural gas, and to make saltwater for the area’s many chemical factories. Over the years, they have repeatedly punched into the dome, hollowing out 53 enormous caverns.
In 1982, on the dome’s western edge, Texas Brine sank a well to begin work on a big cavern: 150 to 300 feet wide and four-tenths of a mile deep, it bottomed out more than a mile underground.
Until it capped the well to the cavern in 2011, the company pumped in fresh water, sucked out saltwater and shipped it to the cavern’s owner, Occidental Chemical.
Who is to blame for what happened next is at issue in a barrage of lawsuits.
But at some point, the well’s western wall collapsed, and the cavern began filling with mud and rock. The mud and rock above it dropped into the vacated space, freeing trapped natural gas.
The gas floated up; the rock slowly slipped down. The result was a yawning, bubbling sinkhole.
“You go in the swamp, and there are places where it’s coming up like boiling crawfish,” Schaff said.
Landry agreed — “it looks like boiling water, like a big pot” — but the two men and their camps agree on little else.
Some stay, most leave
Geologists say the sinkhole will eventually stop growing, perhaps at 50 acres, but how long it will take to reach that size is unclear.
Under state order, Texas Brine has mounted a broad, although some say belated, effort to pump gas out of sandy underground layers where it has spread.
Bayou Corne is pocked with freshly dug wells, with more to come, their pipes leading to flares that slowly burn off the methane. That, everyone concedes, could take years.
The two sides greet that news in different ways.
State surveys show that one of the largest concentrations of methane lies directly under Landry’s neighborhood, a manicured subdivision of substantial brick homes, many with decks overlooking the bayou and its cypresses.
Yet only two families have chosen to leave, and while the Landrys keep suitcases packed just in case, the gas detector in their home offers enough reassurance to remain.
“Do you smell anything?” he asked. “Nope. Do we have gas bubbling up in the bayou? Yes. Where does it go? Straight up. Have they closed the bayou? No.”
The anger and misfortune are focused on Schaff’s neighborhood directly across Highway 70, a jumble of neat clapboard houses, less tidy shotgun-style homes and trailers on narrow roads with names like Sauce Piquante Lane and Jambalaya Street. There, rows of abandoned homes are plastered with “No Trespassing” signs, and the streets are deathly quiet.
Candy Blanchard, a schoolteacher, and her husband, Todd, a welder, moved out the day the sinkhole appeared.
They now pay the monthly mortgage payment on their empty and unsellable 7-year-old house and the rent on another house. Blanchard drops by the house each morning to feed their rabbits and cat, who have lived alone for a year because their landlord would accept only their dog.
The couple rejected an offer from Texas Brine to buy their home and instead have joined a class-action lawsuit against the company. They will never return, Candy Blanchard said, because they do not believe the area is safe.
“The point we’re at now is what the scientists said would never happen, that this would be the worst-case scenario,” she said. “How can you find experts on this when it has never happened anywhere else in the world?”
Schaff’s home also fronts the bayou, and he says he is loath to leave.
But investigators found gas in his garage, he said, and he says he is convinced state officials are playing down the scope of the disaster.
A wry, amiable man with a salt-and-pepper goatee and glasses, Schaff said he had planned to retire on the bayou.
He could not talk about leaving without pausing to fight off tears.
“It’s my home. I want to die there, OK?” he said. “I was going to retire next year, was going to do some fishing, play with my grandchildren, do a little flying. And now, this.”