SHARON SPRINGS -A sinkhole estimated to be about 90 feet deep in western Kansas is drawing so many onlookers that the landowner is pleading for people to stay away.
The sinkhole, which is 200 to 300 feet wide, was discovered July 31 in a pasture several miles north of Sharon Springs on land owned by 82-year-old Margaret Hoss and her family.
It occurred naturally and does not appear to be the result of groundwater depletion or oil or gas drilling, said Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey.
After the sinkhole was publicized, people drove to see it, often ignoring signs to stay off the private pasture, which prompted the Hoss family to erect barricades Monday, The Salina Journal reported. Hoss said she is concerned the traffic will damage fragile grass needed for cattle to forage.
“I’d appreciate some privacy. We’re not running a popularity contest," said Hoss, who said added that state and national media coverage of the sinkhole had made “our life a livin’ hell out here."
Wallace County Sheriff Larry Townsend said he was concerned the visitors could be endangered if the sinkhole suddenly grows.
“The soil tries to level itself. It’s kind of a dangerous place to be gawking around," Townsend said.
Sinkholes occur when soil over an open void caves in. The voids are formed when underground water dissolves rock formations, “in this case probably limestone," Buchanan said.
The hole has a steep face that over time will develop more of a “saucer shape," Buchanan said. He also advises gawkers not approach the sinkhole.
“The best thing you can do with these things is fence them off and walk away," Buchanan said. “There’s nothing good about going down in that thing or getting close to it."
Enormous Sinkhole, Still Expanding, Creates Spectacle in Western Kansas [VIDEO]
A sinkhole more than two-thirds the size of a football field opened in a remote area of far western Kansas, spooking locals and creating a tourist spectacle, much to the chagrin of local officials, who are warning curious onlookers to use caution, as the sinkhole still appears to be expanding. (Photo : YouTube Screenshot / CBS )
A sinkhole more than two-thirds the size of a football field opened in a remote area of far western Kansas, spooking locals and creating a tourist spectacle, much to the chagrin of local officials, who are warning curious onlookers to use caution as the sinkhole still appears to be expanding.
The sinkhole just north of Sharon Springs, about 200 miles east of Denver, seemingly opened up overnight one day last week; it currently measures more than 200 feet across and 90 feet deep.
Local officials report that there were not any mining operations, oil drilling or any other sort of man-made geological disturbances in the area that may have triggered the sinkhole.
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“Man had nothing to do with this. This is a God thing There’s no oil well around here, there are no irrigation wells anywhere near. This is something that just happened," Sharon Springs Sheriff Larry Townsend told local news station KWCH 12.
It’s unclear exactly when the sinkhole opened, but Dalton Hoss, who owns the pasture where the giant hole appeared, said it happened sometime last week.
“Actually, my brother found it. He called me up and his voice was quaking and he said, ‘You’ll never believe what I just saw,'" Hoss said.
Video from local news stations (below) shows locals walking through the sinkhole; the image of grown adults being dwarfed by the size of the sinkhole gives perspective of just how big it is.
“I’d seen pictures and I knew it was deep, but I didn’t think it was this deep. You get out here and you get a whole different perspective on how deep it is," said Gavin Mote.
A number of large cracks in the ground around the sinkhole’s perimeter suggest it will continue to expand, Sheriff Townsend suggests, prompting local authorities and the landowners to issue caution to curious onlookers.
Virlie Langlinais was at her Louisiana home on Lake Peigneur when she saw the swirling vortex. “It was like watching a science fiction movie with tug boats and rigs and everything going on," she recalls from the comfort of her friend’s porch some three decades later, a faint breeze licking off the water below. “Like watching a little ducky in a bathtub going down the drain." Now she and her husband, Noicy, live in fear that it might happen again.
Lake Peigneur, the site of one of the state’s most spectacular industrial disasters in 1980, kept coming up in my conversations with residents of Bayou Corne, the Cajun community in south Louisiana that has been evacuated for more than a year due to a massive, mining-induced sinkhole that now spans 24 acres—and is still growing. Last week, the state filed suit against Texas Brine and Occidental Chemical Company for damages relating to the disaster. (Read my story on Bayou Corne, which appears in the September/October issue of Mother Jones, here.) So on a sticky Sunday morning in June, I crossed over the Atchafalaya spillway to see the place for myself.
In November 1980, in the process of generating revenue for (of all things) an environmental cleanup fund, a Texaco oil rig accidentally punctured the top of a salt mine situated beneath the lake. The water above emptied into the mine, creating a whirlpool that sucked 11 barges into the caverns below, turned the lake from freshwater to saline, and caused the Delcambre Canal to flow backwards. Three days later, 9 of the 11 barges “popped up like iron corks," the Associated Press reported; the other 2 were never found. Miraculously, all 55 workers who were inside the mine at the time of the accident managed to escape.
The disaster caused drilling in Lake Peigneur to cease—at least for a time. The lake showed signs of recovering from its industrial past after that, although it was several hundred feet deeper and stocked with a new species of fish that could live in the saltwater ecosystem. But industry slowly began to creep back.
In 1994, natural gas giant AGL Resources developed two storage caverns in the salt dome beneath the lake, and about eight years ago, the company announced plans to expand its existing caverns and add two more. (Salt caverns—man-made, skyscraper-size cavities punched into enormous underground deposits known as salt domes—are considered ideal storage facilities for natural gas, crude oil, and even some radioactive materials; the Lake Peigneur caverns are located inside what’s known as the Jefferson Island Dome, so named because it juts up above the surface.) Around that time, residents began noticing mysterious bubbling in the lake—stretching in straight lines for hundreds of feet, as if drifting up from some underground vent. In 2006, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco blocked the proposed expansion. AGL then sued the state, and the parties settled three years later; AGL made a series of concessions but was not required to produce an environmental impact statement.
Efforts to identify the source of the bubbling have been unsuccessful. In February, after visiting the lake, experts from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources admitted they had no idea what was causing the foam. Nevertheless, in March, eight months after the ground opened up in Bayou Corne, the state granted a permit for AGL to begin dredging work in preparation for the development of the new storage caverns.
The Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) and Save Lake Peigneur quickly filed suit to block construction on the caverns pending the composition and publication of an environmental impact statement. And in a rare twist for Louisiana politics, the activists have the backing of two leading Republican lawmakers, Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Charles Boustany, both of whom have strong ties to the chemical industry. New Iberia Parish sheriff Louis Ackal, who lived through the swirling vortex of 1980, may be the most outspoken elected critic; in March, he warned Lafayette’s KATC that another disaster on Lake Peigneur would dwarf what happened in Bayou Corne.
Ackal’s nightmare of a 1980 repeat seems far-fetched. As AGL Resources notes in an FAQ page on its site, “Technology has changed dramatically since 1980, when the incident occurred, and the location of this project—deep below the central to northern section of the lake—makes it highly unlikely such an event would occur again." Furthermore, there are no active salt mines underneath the lake for a new well to puncture.
The more pressing issue has to do with the potential for oil and gas to leach into the aquifer—and the impact that an active solution mine, pumping up 3 million gallons of freshwater from the aquifer every day in order to flush out the cavern, would have on the water table where 5,000 people live. The Department of Natural Resources contends that residents’ fears of a cavern breach is out of the question because there’s too much of a buffer between the edge of the storage caverns and the edge of the Jefferson Island Dome. Lake Peigneur’s caverns are about 1,400 feet from the edge—roughly 10 times further than the cavern that collapsed from the side in Bayou Corne. (Prior to last year’s Bayou Corne collapse, regulators and geologists believed the only risk to a salt cavern’s structural integrity came from a top-down collapse.)
But LEAN adviser Wilma Subra argues that even though the caverns aren’t near the edge of the cavern, they’re still relatively close to a pocket of oil and gas, which could be released into the aquifer if something went wrong—and LEAN points to the bubbling as evidence that it may already be happening. According to an analysis from George Losonsky, a hydrologist who has worked with both Save Lake Peigneur and various state agencies, “the geologic formation comprising the salt dome and surrounding rock [is] inherently unstable" and the possibility of some sort of fracturing is a real one.
In a statement provided to Mother Jones, AGL spokesman Duane Bourne sought to allay these concerns:
Approximately 200 salt domes caverns operate in Louisiana. Our Jefferson Island facilities are different than the Assumption Parish cavern because our caverns only store natural gas, not brine. Also the location of our salt dome is different and our existing caverns at Jefferson Island have passed a mechanical integrity test within the last three years, which the Assumption Parish facility failed. While we have heard the concerns of the Save Lake Peigneur group, we vigorously disagree with their assertions related to our project. We believe once this project is completed it will be beneficial to the surrounding communities in ensuring energy continuity and we will continue work on its completion in accordance with all state and federal mandates.
One group who’s keenly aware of the lessons of Lake Peigneur is the displaced residents of Bayou Corne and their supporters. At a community meeting at the Assumption Parish Library in late June, the evacuees heard from a special guest—retired Lt. General Russel Honoré, a South Louisiana native who handled the military’s humanitarian response to Hurricane Katrina. Honoré, dressed informally in khaki shorts and New Balance sneakers, was mostly there to listen, jotting down stories and stats in a lined notebook, but after a while, he gathered his thoughts and outlined the stakes.
“We can’t allow these companies to come in here and disrespect our people, they already disrespected our land," he said. “Because if you haven’t read it yet, you should read what happened to Jefferson Island."
Meet the Town That’s Being Swallowed by a Sinkhole
About once a month, the residents of Bayou Corne, Louisiana, meet at the Assumption Parish library in the early evening to talk about the hole in their lives. “It was just like going through cancer all over again," says one. “You fight and you fight and you fight and you think, ‘Doggone it, I’ve beaten this thing,’ and then it’s back." Another spent last Thanksgiving at a 24-hour washateria because she and her disabled husband had nowhere else to go. As the box of tissues circulates, a third woman confesses that after 20 years of sobriety she recently testified at a public meeting under the influence.
“The God of my understanding says, ‘As you sow, so shall you reap,'" says Kenny Simoneaux, a balding man in a Harley-Davidson T-shirt. He has instructed his grandchildren to lock up the ammunition. “I’m so goddamn mad I could kill somebody."
But the support group isn’t for addiction, PTSD, or cancer, though all of these maladies are present. The hole in their lives is a literal one. One night in August 2012, after months of unexplained seismic activity and mysterious bubbling on the bayou, a sinkhole opened up on a plot of land leased by the petrochemical company Texas Brine, forcing an immediate evacuation of Bayou Corne’s 350 residents—an exodus that still has no end in sight. Last week, Louisiana filed a lawsuit against the company and the principal landowner, Occidental Chemical Corporation, for damages stemming from the cavern collapse.
Texas Brine’s operation sits atop a three-mile-wide, mile-plus-deep salt deposit known as the Napoleonville Dome, which is sheathed by a layer of oil and natural gas, a common feature of the salt domes prevalent in Gulf Coast states. The company specializes in a process known as injection mining, and it had sunk a series of wells deep into the salt dome, flushing them out with high-pressure streams of freshwater and pumping the resulting saltwater to the surface. From there, the brine is piped and trucked to refineries along the Mississippi River and broken down into sodium hydroxide and chlorine for use in manufacturing everything from paper to medical supplies.
What happened in Bayou Corne, as near as anyone can tell, is that one of the salt caverns Texas Brine hollowed out—a mine dubbed Oxy3—collapsed. The sinkhole initially spanned about an acre. Today it covers more than 24 acres and is an estimated 750 feet deep. It subsists on a diet of swamp life and cypress trees, which it occasionally swallows whole. It celebrated its first birthday recently, and like most one-year-olds, it is both growing and prone to uncontrollable burps, in which a noxious brew of crude oil and rotten debris bubbles to the surface. But the biggest danger is invisible; the collapse unlocked tens of millions of cubic feet of explosive gases, which have seeped into the aquifer and wafted up to the community. The town blames the regulators. The regulators blame Texas Brine. Texas Brine blames some other company, or maybe the regulators, or maybe just God.
Bayou Corne is the biggest ongoing industrial disaster in the United States you haven’t heard of. In addition to creating a massive sinkhole, it has unearthed an uncomfortable truth: Modern mining and drilling techniques are disturbing the geological order in ways that scientists still don’t fully understand. Humans have been extracting natural resources from the earth since the dawn of mankind, but never before at the rate and magnitude of today’s petrochemical industry. And the side effects are becoming clear. It’s not just sinkholes and town-clearing natural gas leaks: Recently, the drilling process known as fracking has been linked to an increased risk of earthquakes.
“When you keep drilling over and over and over again, whether it’s into bedrock or into salt caverns, at some point you have fractured the integrity of this underground structure enough that something is in danger of collapsing," observes ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber, whose work has focused on fracking and injection wells. “It’s an inherently dangerous situation."
The sinkhole foced the entire town of Bayou Corne to evacuate. Jerry Dubinsky for Leanweb.org/LMRK.org
The domes are not just harvested for their salt. Over the last 60 years, in the Gulf Coast—and to a lesser extent in Kansas, Michigan, and New York—industry has increasingly used the sprawling caverns that result from injection mining as a handy place to store things—namely crude oil, pressurized gases, and even radioactive materials. The federal government considers salt tombs in Louisiana and Texas ideal for the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The hundreds of salt caverns that honeycomb the substrata, as companies like Texas Brine take pains to point out, are mostly safe, most of the time. But when something goes wrong, the results are disastrous—sometimes spelling the end for nearby communities. The dangers are myriad, from sinkholes to natural gas explosions to toxic-fume releases. Salt caverns account for just 7 percent of all natural gas storage facilities in the United States (although that number is increasing) but 100 percent of all major accidents, according to one industry analyst.
Bayou Corne residents need only drive a quarter mile down Highway 70 to see the worst-case scenario. On Christmas Day 2003, a methane leak from a Napoleonville Dome salt cavern storing natural gas forced residents of Grand Bayou, a neighboring hamlet, to evacuate. Dow Chemical, which owned the cavern, bought out the mostly elderly residents, leaving only concrete slabs behind. In places like Barbers Hill, Texas, similar leaks have turned once-thriving neighborhoods into ghost towns. A 2001 cavern leak in Hutchinson, Kansas, spewed 30-foot-tall geysers of gas and water and caused an explosion that left two people dead.
“I hate to say, but it’s not an unusual event," says Robert Traylor, a geologist at the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state’s oil and gas regulator. “These things happen. In the oil business, a million things can go wrong, and they usually go wrong."
But disasters like the one in Bayou Corne have done little to slow the growth of injection mining. Last spring, lawmakers in Baton Rouge pushed through a handful of modest reforms in response to the sinkhole, but the toughest regulations were knocked down by the chemical industry. New caverns continue to be permitted. It’s not a question of whether there will be another Bayou Corne—but where, and how big.
On a scorching June morning, I board a Cessna to survey the sinkhole. My 45-mile flight passes through the heart of southern Louisiana’s industrial jungle, a continuous series of pipelines and processing plants that line the Mississippi as it twists like a busted-up slinky toward the gulf. The smoking skyline gives way to a checkered ribbon of cane and soybean fields and at last to the swampy interior of Assumption Parish.
You notice the booms first, bright yellow plastic rolls designed to trap the oil and brine that collect on the surface and prevent them from seeping into the surrounding waterways. A grove of cypress trees has been stripped bare and sits gray and rotting. At 500 feet, the air is thick with the smell of crude, and the water has a rainbow sheen; in the last few hours, the sinkhole has burped again, and workers are scurrying to contain the new release.
The Acadians—the French Canadian refugees who settled here in the 1700s—were drawn to the bayous by their bounty of gators and crawdads and spoonbills. Petrochemical giants came for other reasons: the chemicals in the salt domes and the oil and gas reserves that surround them. Gas and brine pipelines cross over and under the town and its surrounding swamps, carving up the basin into a web of rights of way for companies including Chevron, Dow, Crosstex, and Florida Gas.
Texas Brine’s Oxy3 cavern, one of 53 in the Napoleonville Dome and one of six operated by the company, is more than a mile below the surface. At that depth, 3-D seismic mapping is both time-consuming and expensive, and as a consequence, injection-mining companies often have only a foggy—and outdated—idea of what their mines really look like. “Everybody wants to do it within a certain budget and a certain time frame," explains Jim LaÂMoreaux, a hydrologist who organizes an annual conference on salt-cavern-caused sinkholes. In some cases, he says, it’s possible that companies cut corners and fail to commission the proper studies.
Texas Brine’s first and last mapping project was in 1982, and by the company’s own admission, it understated Oxy3’s proximity to the edge of the salt dome and the possibility of a breach. When another company surveyed the dome a few years ago, it found that Texas Brine’s cavern was less than 100 feet from the outer sheath of oil and gas, far closer than is permitted in other states. While Louisiana had restrictions on gas storage caverns, it had nothing on the books for active brine wells—only what regulators called a “rule of thumb" that wells be set back 200 feet.
When Texas Brine applied for a permit to expand Oxy3 in 2010, the company pressure-tested the cavern as mandated by the state, but it was unable to build up the requisite pressure, let alone sustain it. “At this time, a breach out of the salt dome appears possible," Mark Cartwright, a Texas Brine executive, notified the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The DNR asked Texas Brine to “plug and abandon" the well. The agency did not, as it sometimes does, request further monitoring. Both parties expected the cavern to hold its shape, and it did until early June 2012, when Gary Metrejean felt the ground shake.
“I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t want everyone to think I was crazy," he says. But his neighbors noticed it, too. And they also saw something else unusual—bubbles of gas (“like boiling pasta," one resident recalls) appearing around the bayou.
Oxy3 was starting to cave in, but at the time the community was at a loss. The state’s experts first suspected a leak from a natural gas pipeline, but that turned up nothing, so they investigated and ruled out the possibility that the bubbling might be “swamp gas"—naturally occurring emissions from decaying plant life. The US Geological Survey confirmed an increase in seismic activity but couldn’t determine its exact source—there are no fault lines in the area. At the end of July 2012, with tremors and bubbling increasing and no clear signs of subsidence, Texas Brine, which had emerged as a possible culprit, told state officials that a sinkhole was highly unlikely.
On August 3, Bayou Corne residents awoke to the smell of sweet crude emanating from a gaping pit on the other side of the highway. Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an evacuation order that afternoon. Texas Brine got a permit to drill a relief well. When the company finally accessed the plugged chamber, they found the outer wall of the salt dome had collapsed. The breach allowed sediment to pour into the cavern, creating a seam through which oil and explosive gases were forced up to the surface.
It has been well established that structurally challenged caverns, owing to a lack of maintenance or poor planning, can cause sinkholes. In 1954, the collapse of a brining cavern at Bayou Choctaw, north of Baton Rouge—located in the same dome that today houses part of the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve—created an 820-foot-wide lake. In 2008, a 150-foot-deep crater known as “Sinkhole de Mayo" opened up over a cavern 50 miles northeast of Houston that had been used for storing oil drilling waste. But those disasters were all due to top-down pressure. Oxy3 collapsed from the side, something regulators and briners had previously considered impossible—highlighting, once again, how poorly understood the geology of salt caverns truly is.
Texas Brine’s official line is that it has no idea why its cavern suddenly gave way; a mess appeared on its property without warning, and it is doing the responsible thing by cleaning it up. Yet it didn’t begin paying buyouts to evacuees until nine months after the collapse, when Jindal threatened to shut down its Louisiana operations if it didn’t. The settlements come with no admission of wrongdoing—to the contrary, the company insists the town is perfectly safe, and that residents (some of whom have defied the evacuation order) are taking advantage of Texas Brine’s generosity by accepting weekly $875 stipends for living expenses while never leaving their homes. Only 59 homeowners have taken deals so far; others have signed onto a class action lawsuit against the company that’s set to go to trial next year. Celebrity activist Erin Brockovich has been shuttling back and forth to Bayou Corne enlisting plaintiffs. “I just don’t think anyone’s gonna live there again," she says. “And if no one lives there, what desire is there for Texas Brine to clean it up? It’s a tragedy really all the way around."
I meet Millard Fillmore “Sonny" Cranch, a crisis PR specialist retained by Texas Brine, in a trailer a hundred yards from the edge of the sinkhole. Nearby are two storage silos emblazoned with the company’s slogan, “Texas Brine. Responsible Care." Cranch is a self-described “old fart" with Harry Potter glasses that wrap around his curly white hair and a habit of pounding the steering wheel when he wants to make a point.
The company’s cleanup crew is rounding the “clubhouse turn," he explains, and they believe the sediment level in the cavern is stabilizing; the sinkhole may still expand slightly, and the burps might continue, but the worst is in the past. Truth be told, he’s not even sure why the evacuation order is still active, but hey, if there’s a “perceived risk," then safety first, right? According to Cranch, most of the gas that has been detected in explosive levels under the community is “naturally occurring swamp gas." (State officials aren’t so sure.) Besides, Cranch tells me, it’s not as if there’s anything particularly menacing about hydrogen sulfide. “Flatulence is H2S," he says, sensing a chance to lighten the mood. “You’re producing H2S as we speak right now."
In the car, Cranch says this morning’s burp hadn’t released much oil, but once we get to the site and inhale the fumes, he quickly revises his estimate upward: “I lied—that’s more than five gallons." While the DNR warns that accurate measurements are difficult, John Boudreaux, the Assumption Parish director of emergency preparedness, told me more than 300 gallons had surfaced. (In July, Boudreaux double-checked the company’s estimate of the sinkhole’s depth—140 feet, Texas Brine claimed—and found that it had understated the figure by a factor of five.)
Given the class action, Texas Brine has a financial interest in deflecting the blame. During our outing, Cranch floats two possible culprits for the sinkhole: an oil well that another company drilled just outside the edge of the dome in the 1950s, or perhaps an earthquake. This isn’t the official Texas Brine position, he’s careful to add—"that’s just Millard Cranch, theorizing."
The locals find such theories particularly irksome. “They think we’re just a bunch of ignorant coonasses," says Mike Schaff, who like a few dozen Bayou Corne residents has ignored the evacuation order and stayed in his home. “We may be coonasses—but we’re not ignorant."
Ignorance, willful or otherwise, is inextricable from what happened in Bayou Corne. Not only do Louisiana regulators have a poor grasp on how miners may be disturbing subsurface geology, they also have a pretty vague sense of how many caverns are located close to the outer ring of salt domes. In January, the Department of Natural Resources ordered companies with salt caverns to provide their most recently updated maps, and the agency is working on rules that would require additional modeling of the 29 caverns that are within 300 feet of an edge. And the agency is proposing regulations mandating that caverns be shut down and monitored for five years, rather than simply plugged and abandoned, if they fail a mechanical integrity test.
That’s a start. But Wilma Subra, a MacArthur “Genius Grant"-winning chemist who advises the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, a group that’s been monitoring the Bayou Corne sinkhole, is dubious that any meaningful action will be taken. “The regulatory climate is such that agencies are only allowed to put forth regulations that the industry supports," Subra says. Meanwhile, she adds, “What occurred in Bayou Corne shows what could potentially occur in any number of the other salt domes that have storage caverns."
Just down the road from what’s left of Bayou Corne, the slabs and dead grass of Grand Bayou stand as a warning, albeit one nobody paid much attention to. There’s a road sign on the water’s edge bearing an Oliver Wendell Holmes quote: “Where we love is home—home that our feet may leave but not our hearts." The sign includes a date to mark the beginning of the settlement. There’s no year of death, but it reads like the town’s tombstone.
Back at the Assumption Parish library, Candy Blanchard has the floor and she’s rolling. The exodus is on everyone’s mind. She and her husband were planning out their retirement in a community their families had called home for generations. “Anybody who stays here and camps here, you gotta wanna be here," she says. “I mean, it’s not a booming place." They hunt, they fish, they frog—or they did, anyway. But for the last 10 months, they’ve been crashing with friends in Paincourtville, and her husband has fallen into depression. Every morning, Blanchard, an elementary school teacher, breaks down on her drive to work and collects herself in the parking lot. But there’s something about her odyssey her students seem to grasp immediately. “I taught migration this year," she tells the sniffling room. “It was the easiest lesson I’ve taught in my entire life."