POSTED: Monday, November 19, 2012 - 7:30pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - 10:04am
BATON ROUGE, LA (NBC33) — Louisiana has over 120 salt domes and many different drilling operations on them. The residents of Bayou Corne know the reality of a potential disaster is all too real.
"Who'd buy here," Ernest Boudreaux Jr., Bayou Corne resident, said. "I wouldn't have bought here if I would have know the salt dome ran this far."
Duane Bier lives in Bayou Corne, he said ever since the sinkhole formed close to his home, it's hard to sleep at night.
"I need somebody to tell me the whole story. Don't just tell me what you want me to hear," said Bier.
Bayou Corne isn't the first community to have a problem occur on a salt dome. A sinkhole was created in a cavern located in Bayou Choctaw during the 1950's.
Another disaster happened on Lake Peingier during the 1980's.
Today the area looks like a beautiful peaceful place. However, Michael Richard caught on camera water from the lake as it began to drain and land that was once completely dry sank into the lake. Tall trees now barely touch out the surface of the water, and the chimney of two story homes peak on the horizon of the lake.
LSU geology professor Jeffrey Nunn explained that a crew drilling for oil on the salt dome miscalculated and sent the water from the lake rushing into a salt mine underneath the surface.
"Every time you drill a well there is risk," said Nunn. "In South Louisiana, over the last century, literally tens of thousands of wells have been drilled and there are relatively small numbers of instances."
Over 120 salt domes lie underneath the ground in Louisiana.
"The simplest way to think of a salt dome is it's really a mountain of salt that's underground," said Nunn.
Scientists believe these domes formed millions of years ago.
"The Gulf of Mexico was a narrow body of water and it actually completely, or partially, evaporated and deposited a layer of salt," Nunn explained.
He went on to explain as deltas were formed the salt was pushed up into domes as force from sediment deposits.
Today these domes are used for oil and gas storage. Others are used for drilling including mining for brine. Nunn says living on a salt dome is relatively safe, but there is always a risk operators could make a mistake.
"You are dissolving salt. You are creating a big cavern, You're also drilling for oil and gas, which, in some instances, may be under pressure and not being controlled properly could come spewing up to the surface," Nunn said. "Most of the risk would come from some sort of seepage or leak from the cavern."
Patrick Courreges with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources agrees there are some risks associated with salt domes.
"[The biggest risk] is poorly designed, poorly operated, poorly maintained - that would be your worst risk," he said.
However, he says the risks are very small.
"The fact that strategic petroleum reserve is stored in salt domes indicates the faith that's been held for years by the federal government, science, and scientists that those are stable formations to use for storage," said Courreges.
The DNR monitors every aspect of drilling operations to try and prevent situations like what's happening in Bayou Corne. Courreges notes that there is a certain level of good faith DNR has to have between companies and the department.
"[You put in] work on the front end to say if you're planning on doing this, tell us exactly how you plan to do this exactly how it's going to work," he said. "We are going to check to make sure that makes sense based on our knowledge. As this goes on, we are going to have check points to make sure this is going as you said it would, that you're operating as you said it would, that you are still within our rules."
"At the end point is the accountability, the knowledge that if you get it wrong you will be held accountable to make good on whatever damages are done," he added.
When asked directly, Courreges told NBC33 News he would feel safe living on top of a salt dome. However, people living in Bayou Corne say after what they've been through, they don't know how anyone would want to live on a salt dome.
"A few of us was talking I got a good friend of mine who lives right down the road. He told me 'I don't want my place' now what you going keep them (home) for you can't sell them," Boudreaux said.
In October, scientist with the Shaw Group explained to residents at a community meeting in Bayou Corne that they believe one reason for the giant sinkhole is a pressure issue at the failed Texas Brine cavern. They explained that pressure around the cavern was too great and caused cracks or "fractures" in the side of the cavern closest to the sinkhole. The pressure went through these cracks and pushed upward eventually causing the collapse and the sinkhole.
Professor Nunn explained in an interview held prior to that meeting that salt domes, especially the walls of salt caverns, are extremely ductile. He says the wrong mix of pressure and exposed periods of time could cause a problem.
"If you put pressure on one end of a tube of toothpaste and you took the cap off so it's free to flow, it's just going to flow out one side," he said. "If you did the same thing to most other solids, nothing would happen."
Bier says the state needs to do more to raise awareness of how far salt domes extend, and what exactly is being done on the dome.
"Some body in the state is supposed to tell you things like this," he said. "People ordinarily wouldn't spend a lot of money trying to build a house if somebody would have been telling you, wait a minute now this can't be developed because there's gas wells all over the place, or if there is wells there. Tell me, then if I want to build, it's my option, but don't hide it from me my goodness gracious."
Video of accident at Lake Peingier is courtesy of Michael Richard.