Fears are mounting that the Bayou Corne sinkhole area methane gas could burst through the ground with explosive force, according to officials and one of the nation's top environmental legal experts Monday, speaking about what has become a grave violation of health and security human rights.
Local officials told the Advocate that they are very concerned that the odorless and colorless gas is accumulating under the Bayou Corne sinkhole area, that includes Grand Bayou and Pierre Part, to the point it could burst through the ground with explosive force.
"I go to sleep thinking about the sinkhole and I wake up in the morning thinking about the sinkhole," young mother of two in Pierre Part, just over the Bayou Corne mandatory evacuation line, Alicia Heilig told Deborah Dupré in an email, highlighting the human rights abuses involved in the event.
An as-yet undetermined amount of natural gas is trapped in the aquifer underneath the Bayou Corne community, state and parish officials have said.
"This alarming news comes amid news reports that tremors are now being felt in a wide area across the bayou," states New Orleans-based environmental attorney Stuart Smith in his blog post.
"This happened late last week, roughly 45 miles from Bayou Corne," Smith reported, referring to human rights reporter Deborah Dupré's article, Mysterious tremors 45 miles from sinkhole.
"Earthquakes occur within areas of weakness in the earth's crust, revealed by fractures and faults," according to Donald A. Stevenson and Richard P. McCulloh of Louisiana Geological Survey.
The new south Louisiana tremors have occurred along with more evidence that the BP Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe, that began in April 2010, is still leaking oil and possibly linked to fissures and sea cracks in the wrecked Macondo Well where the company was drilling from the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded.
"This is an incredibly dangerous situation in the Louisiana bayou," Smith says, quoting this author's article about mounting reports of methane bubbling up from underground throughout the region:
Methane bubbles have been emerging in the sinkhole vicinity for four months. There are now [twenty-eight] bubble sites percolating in the sinkhole vicinity. As far as 80 miles west, at Lake Peigneur, gas bubbling has also increased. A resident who has lived and fished in the sinkhole area for decades has reported that the entire 1-mile by 3-mile Napoleonville Salt Dome area has been sinking.
Some scientists believe the sinkhole was caused when a subterranean brine cavern in the 1-mile by 3-mile Napoleonville Salt Dome collapsed. The breached cavern floor, storing radioactive materials and brine, is over 1,000 feet underground. The bottom is now leaking hydrocarbons into the cavern. Other scientists say some other powerful force has caused the cavern to breach, the seismic activity and escaping gas.
As early as Thursday, according to officials, the trapped methane gas, now known to have penetrated the aquifer near the sinkhole possibly to the point of explosive force, is due to be vented, or, what concerns locals, flared.
Flaring involves burning off flammable gas.
Wikipedia states about flaring:
Whenever industrial plant equipment items are over-pressured, the pressure relief valves provided as essential safety devices on the equipment automatically release gases and sometimes liquids as well. Those pressure relief valves are required by industrial design codes and standards as well as by law.
The released gases and liquids are routed through large piping systems called flare headers to a vertical elevated flare. The released gases are burned as they exit the flare stacks. The size and brightness of the resulting flame depends upon the flammable material's flow rate in terms of joules per hour (or btu per hour).
Most industrial plant flares have a vapor-liquid separator (also known as a knockout drum) upstream of the flare to remove any large amounts of liquid that may accompany the relieved gases.
Steam is very often injected into the flame to reduce the formation of black smoke. In order to keep the flare system functional, a small amount of gas is continuously burned, like a pilot light, so that the system is always ready for its primary purpose as an over-pressure safety system.
Flaring and burning of associated gas from oil drilling sites is a significant source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, according to Attachment C, Oil Refinery Sector Recommendations, from the California Air Resources Board website, pages 11-13.
"The methane release represents a very significant explosion hazard, and of course methane is a potent greenhouse gas," Martin Preston, marine pollution specialist and honorary research fellow at the University of Liverpool, told the Guardian in March, as fears grew that a naked flame on the top of a leaking gas rig could spark a massive explosion and lead to a major pollution incident in the North Sea.
"The gas in this field is 'sour gas' – ie it contains hydrogen sulphide which is very poisonous to humans and aquatic life – so localised risks to marine life are likely. The hydrogen sulphide content of the current release is unclear at present. Localised fish kills cannot be ruled out."
At that time, oil pollution expert Simon Boxall of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, said that due to the leak occurring below the water's surface, hydrogen sulphide released could lead to mass animal and plant deaths.
Some experts have not ruled out the possibility that the Louisiana sinkhole emergency situation could involve an explosion comparable to an H-bomb explosion. The area is criss-crossed with oil and gas pipelines. South Louisiana is home to more oil refineries than any other state. At the best of times, oil refineries in Louisiana averaged more than nine accidents per week, according to the state's non-government watchdog, Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB).
"Louisiana’s 17 refineries have averaged an accident every day since 2005. In the year since the BP well was capped (September 2010-September 2011), there were more than 3,700 oil industry accidents in the Gulf of Mexico," reports LABB.
"The oil industry is so profitable because they can externalize their costs on poor states like Louisiana. Last year, Exxon’s two refineries in the state (Baton Rouge and Chalmette) had 133 accidents. Meanwhile, their profits exceeded $30 billion. There is a connection."
In Bayou Corne, workers began this weekend drilling three vent wells.
"This may eventually relieve some of the pressure — but the mental pressure and anguish for those who own homes in the community must be hard to take," Smith says.
Heilig, 27, mother of a sick baby and a child at Pierre Part Elementary School, told Dupré this weekend in an email about the sinkhole chemical disaster, “I will not stop fighting this, but I’m getting out of here if I have to pitch a tent somewhere.”
Heilig, a rights defender, lives near one of the latest methane bubble sites in Pierre Part where she and her family smells what they report as gagging chemical odors from their home.
Since the methane bubbling in the bayous began over four months ago, the Heilig family's eyes burn, they have new sinus problems, painful ear problems and suffer from a constant dull headache, they have told Dupré.
“And all the while, my daughter's school bus turns around at Sportmans Landing where the mobile command center is set up in the evacuation area," Heilig said.
“I never ever, ever get sick," Alicia's mother, Deby told Dupré in a telephone interview. "I haven’t had the flu since 1978 and I work in health care. Now I keep a constant headache and it never goes away, my eyes burn. I get nauseous. I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong.
"I don’t even try to take Tylenol or Ibuprophen anymore because this does not go away with those," Deby said.
"The lady that lives next door to Alicia has 3 children," she said. "One has pink eye, one has sinus infection and the other has an infection - all mainly with non-contagious things."
"It didn’t have to be this way," Smith asserts about the fossil fuel-related man-made disaster that violates health and security human rights.
"State and Texas Brine officials knew about potential problems at the dome more than a year and a half ago, and the state Department of Environmental Quality was painfully slow to respond to the first reports of tremors and bubbling gases this summer."
In Bayou Corne, workers began this weekend drilling three vent wells.
"Let’s pray that the efforts to reduce the pressure are not too little — or too late," Smith said.