With the effects of the 2010 BP oil spill still haunting Louisiana shores, the southern part of the state is gearing up for another man-made disaster: a flammable, radioactive sinkhole. Meanwhile, local residents are scrambling to relocate from the ravenous anomaly capable of swallowing trees 100 feet tall, while others are filing lawsuits against Texas Brine, the salt mining company that triggered the collapse.
But officials aren’t nervous because a forest is sinking. The sinkhole is dangerously close to an underground facility storing 63 million gallons of liquid butane. Conflicting statements from Texas Brine indicate that there may also be radioactive material illegally stored decades ago in the same salt dome Texas Brine was mining.
A Boiling (Flammable) Crawfish Pot
Residents of Bayou Corne, a town in Assumption Parish 40 miles south of Baton Rouge, purportedly watched swamp gas bubbles grow in number since spring, until the bayou looked like “a boiling crawfish pot.” State officials detected explosive levels of natural gas as well as hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide in June, and seismic tremors gripped the town with fear shortly thereafter.
The sinkhole first made itself known on August 3. Its first measurements were 324 feet in diameter and 422 feet deep. Recent estimates put it at 6 acres wide.
For thirty years, Texas Brine Co. LLC has been mining salt in the area to make brine, a solution of salt-water used for processes ranging from making paper to pharmaceuticals. When the brine is removed from the salt dome (as it was for the Napoleonville salt dome), a salt cavern is formed. One such salt cavern was unsound for months, according to the Ascension Parish sheriff and locals, and Texas Brine didn’t bother informing the public. Then, it was breached, and the sinkhole appeared overnight.
Toxic Gas and Water, Fire, and Radiation Fears
Residents have been evacuated to escape the toxic gas, contaminated water, and the possibility of a catastrophic explosion. Scientists are organizing vent wells to burn off gas, such as the methane bubbling up to the surface of the sinkhole.
To add insult to injury, Texas Brine VP Bruce Martin said in August that naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) was illegally disposed of inside the Napoleonville Dome in the 1990s, a statement that Texas Brine officials are now denying.
“We submitted a request to DNR (Department of Natural Resources) to place this material, this [NORM], that was actually about a little bit less than a cubic yard, to place it back in the well,” Martin is on record saying. “We did that work. That material was solid dirt, dirt with some NORM in it, and it was placed in the bottom of the well, and it would be my guess and firm belief that that’s where it sits today.”
Radiation: Unsafe at Any Level
The NORM in question had a radioactivity of 20 to 40 micro-rems per hour. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) states that the general populace should experience no more than 500 millirems above background radiation per year. (The average American experiences about 0.62 rem (620 millirem, 620,000 micro-rems) per year simply from cosmic rays, radon from our very earth, and man-made sources like x-rays. As we’ve covered, however, radiation is unsafe at any dose. You can calculate your radiation exposure here and read more about variables to consider regarding radiation exposure and protection.