A way of life on the brink of extinction in the Louisiana bayous

Forced out of their homes near a toxic sinkhole, the residents expected help. A year on, they still wait

Bayou Corne, Louisiana

"It used to be the most beautiful place on Earth. I thought that I'd die down there." The wistful words of Mike Schaff crackle through the co-pilot headphones as he banks his single-propeller plane to make one last circle over the small jumble of homes and canals deep in the verdant bayou country of Louisiana that he has called home all his life.

Click the image above to enlarge graphic

The burly Mr Schaff, who barely fits in the tight quarters of the cockpit, is not up here to show how the bayous shimmer in the evening light. He has returned, as he has repeatedly in the past year, to view the saucepan-shaped lake that sits to the side of his tiny hamlet of Bayou Corne. "Did they tell you it's still growing?" he asks, before pointing to a faint oil sheen you could only see from up here.

By "they" he means Texas Brine, a Houston company that is grappling with an environmental disaster as frightening as it is unprecedented. The lake is in fact a giant sinkhole that opened up overnight 12 months ago this weekend, swallowing ancient trees whole. Nor has it been quiet since. The hole goes through periodic convulsions, or burps, as methane gas escapes to the surface along with quantities of crude oil. Since appearing, it has expanded from about three acres to some 22.

Like so many other communities here in the Delta, Bayou Corne had learned to live side by side with the chemical and energy industry that has installations scattered throughout the area. It has been 10 years since a methane leak at a Dow Chemical plant up the road led to the evacuation of residents for three months and killed off a swathe of trees and vegetation. Today, a mandatory evacuation order is still in effect, although not everyone has complied. Bayou Corne is in danger of extinction.

Dennis Landry, the owner of Sportsman's Landing, which offers holiday cottages and a slip for cruising the bayous and crawfish boating, is among those clinging on. "We never would have thought this could happen to our little paradise," he laments, taking a break from mowing his lawns with a vintage John Deere tractor. His business had been booming, not least thanks to a television programme about life in the bayous called Swamp People that has been a hit on cable. "Things had never been better. Then the sinkhole happened."

Mr Landry is getting his property shipshape ahead of a small commemoration event planned to mark the first anniversary of the disaster. It was of course to be a sober affair. Some residents are more stoic than others. "Mess with Mother Nature too much and something bad is going to happen," he observes.

But there is widespread anger here almost all of it aimed at Texas Brine. A deadline for homeowners to accept cash payments for their blighted homes expired yesterday. According to the company, about 92 out of 150 residents have accepted a deal. For everyone else, however – Mr Schaff among them – the lawsuits can now begin.

Bayou Corne has the fortune, or misfortune, to sit almost atop one of the many giant salt domes that are dotted, deep beneath the Earth's surface, all across the Mississippi Delta. The domes – this one is a mile wide and three long and goes more than mile down – have been mined by companies like Texas Brine, which have carved out caverns to extract brine used in chemical processes such as making PVC. Once tapped out, these caverns are sometimes used by the US government to store its strategic reserve of crude oil.

Texas Brine is not hiding what went wrong. It operated one cavern that was apparently too close to the outer wall of this dome. Eventually a breach occurred, connecting the cavern to the geology outside the dome, which includes not just sand and shale but large amounts of oil and methane gas. Huge pressures were involved and it was the collapse of the wall that caused the earth to move violently on 3 August 2012, creating the sinkhole, now about 500ft at its deepest. "It's obvious this was our cavern and the sinkhole is on our lease property," says Sonny Cranch, a spokesman for the company, before adding: "But the real unknown is what caused this breach."

At the very least it seems part of the blame is on the company's geology research. But the other question is whether it is doing what it should, ethically and legally, to alleviate the suffering of Bayou Corne's residents and whether it did enough to prevent the catastrophe.

The company admits it understood as far back as in 2009 that a miscalculation may have led to mining the cavern where it did and, moreover, that the cavern failed a government-ordered pressure stress test in 2010. The first signs of trouble came in May last year when gas bubbles showed up in Bayou Corne. But it seems they were disregarded.

Among those speaking out on behalf of residents is Russel Honoré, a retired army general who took a leading role in winning compensation for the people of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He says he became involved because, one year after the disaster, Bayou Corne has been largely ignored.

"If this 22-acre sinkhole was 30 miles from Boston it would be in the news daily, the federal government would be involved," he told The Independent on Sunday. "But you know, it's the wetlands of Louisiana and few people care. Even the big time environmental groups have ignored the significance of this sinkhole."

He added: "What this has exposed is that these out-of-state companies do anything they want in Louisiana. Our government has been co-opted. These companies have the best government money can buy".

Victims of the disaster include Brandon Alleman, 30, who works for his father's crawfish company. He had only just finished constructing his comfortable brick home next to his father's when the sinkhole appeared. Since then he, his wife and two young children have been living in a trailer home – with black humour he calls it his "mobile mansion" – a few miles away. The reason for the evacuation is not the sinkhole itself but the still leaking gas. In theory, if gas accumulates under his home it could blow it sky high without warning.

To show how widespread the methane leakage is, Mr Allemon took this reporter on a metal skiff through the bayous near the sinkhole. It is a bewitching, prehistoric landscape of giant cypress trees draped in Spanish moss. Small alligators eye the boat and egrets and herons take off from low branches. Every few hundred yards, however, the surface of the water is disturbed by bubbling gas. The more violent among them are like small underwater geysers, gurgling forth like the jets of a Jacuzzi. Staying in Bayou Corne is not an option for him, nor was taking the offered settlement. He and his father are part of a class action federal lawsuit.

"My dad bought our piece of property with the intention of having his kids living with him. They have taken that all away, that's how we feel. How can a corporation like this get you out of your own house for a whole year and probably more? I don't get it." He adds: "They have been real asses, I don't trust them."

Also under the evacuation order is neighbouring Grand Bayou, the community hit by the Dow Chemical leak a decade ago. Geena Dedros was evacuated then and is still in a legal tangle with Dow. This time she didn't have the stomach for it and she has accepted the Texas Brine settlement and left her house. "We are little people trying to fight a big industry and it's almost impossible," she says. She doesn't know where she will move.

Texas Brine insists it is doing everything it can. So far it has sunk 37 venting wells in the hope of depleting the methane to the point where it is no longer a threat. It may take three years to complete. "I can honestly say the company has tried to do the right thing all along," Mr Cranch says. "We understand the anger and the frustration, we truly do. We have tried not to be hard-asses."

But Mr Schaff snorts at the "propaganda". Until three weeks ago he, too, was negotiating with Texas Brine for compensation. He called it quits when it became clear it wasn't going to come close to what he believes he is entitled to. "What I needed was a tidy sum and they kept coming back with an untidy sum," he says with disgust. "They are treating my life, everyone's lives, like they were used car dealers."

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