BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Seven months after a sinkhole forced the evacuation of 150 homes in swampy Assumption Parish, Gov. Bobby Jindal said Monday that he'll visit the site where nine acres of land have disintegrated into muck.
Jindal said he'll head to the sinkhole site next week. The announcement comes after residents displaced since early August criticized the governor's absence and after local media highlighted Jindal's refusal to say whether he'd check out the state's response efforts in person.
In a new hands-on approach, Jindal visited at the governor's mansion Monday with Assumption Parish leaders and state lawmakers from the area to discuss the work to stabilize the site. They also discussed concerns about the threat of a new sinkhole developing in the area.
Scientists say the sinkhole formed after the failure of an underground salt cavern operated by a Houston-based firm, Texas Brine Co. LLC, which extracted brine and piped it to nearby petrochemical facilities. The cavern failure released oil and natural gas from formations along the salt dome face.
Jindal said he's meeting Wednesday with officials from the company to push for buyouts for the evacuated families.
"It's time for Texas Brine to step up and do the right thing for the people in Bayou Corne," Jindal said in a statement.
The sinkhole opened up in August near a community along Bayou Corne, a sparsely populated area of swampland about 40 miles south of Baton Rouge.
Officials issued an evacuation order to about 350 people living in the area that has remained in effect for more than seven months, with no immediate end in sight.
Jindal had repeatedly said he's received regular updates from his agency chiefs about the state's ongoing response efforts to the sinkhole.
But the governor — considered a potential 2016 presidential candidate — hadn't made the hour-long trip to see the damage and meet with residents, even as he traveled the nation for Republican campaigns, fundraisers and speeches.
A spokesman didn't immediately respond Monday to a question about why the governor waited so long to visit the sinkhole site.
No buyouts have been offered to Bayou Corne residents so far, with Texas Brine officials saying they are focused on immediate response efforts. Some residents have filed lawsuits against the company.
Bruce Martin, vice president of operations for Texas Brine, told lawmakers recently that the company expects to have the site fully contained by April.
But worries have arisen about another nearby cavern owned by Texas Brine that is closer to the edge of the salt dome than originally thought. Jindal said state agency leaders have drawn up a response plan in case it's needed.
"According to the Department of Natural Resources, there are no data at this time to suggest a failure is occurring or that a failure is imminent. But, we are not taking anything for granted," the governor said.
The natural resources department is running tests on the second Texas Brine cavern to determine its risk of collapse, and Jindal said the agency will have more data by the end of April about the cavern's structural integrity.
The second cavern is close to a main highway running through the parish. Jindal's office said the transportation department has come up with detour plans if the road is threatened and would consider rerouting and rebuilding the highway further north if needed.