BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Texas Brine will offer buyouts to Assumption Parish residents whose homes are in a swampy area under evacuation because of a nine-acre sinkhole, Gov. Bobby Jindal said Wednesday.
Scientists say the sinkhole formed after the collapse of an underground salt cavern operated by Houston-based 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.
"They caused the situation. They've got to make this right," Jindal said after a closed-door meeting with company leaders.
About 350 people living in the area have been under an evacuation order and many of them displaced for more than seven months, with no immediate end in sight.
Jindal said Texas Brine plans to send out appraisers beginning Monday to help determine residents' interest in the voluntary buyouts and to assess the value of homes in the area — or to discuss settlements with those who choose to stay.
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.
"What we're looking forward to is trying to get some relief for the residents of Bayou Corne who have been fighting this for seven months, who have been relocated, living in trailer parks and other locations outside their home. And we want these people to have the financial wherewithal to be able to relocate and move on with their lives," said Assumption Parish Police Jury President Marty Triche, who attended Wednesday's meeting.
Jindal said he didn't have any estimates of what buyouts or settlements for the 150 homes in the evacuation area could cost Texas Brine. He said the company pledged to complete the appraisal and assessment process within weeks.
Company officials, including president Ted Grabowski, left the governor's mansion without speaking to the media, after talking with the governor and Assumption Parish officials.
The company issued a statement in which Grabowski said Texas Brine will meet this week with U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey about settlement offers. Zainey is overseeing the lawsuits that have been filed against Texas Brine in federal court.
"Our legal counsel was able to bring the governor up to speed on where things stand with the current legal filings and explain that Texas Brine is preparing to engage either directly or through counsel with those residents interested in discussing a possible resolution to their claims," Grabowski said in the statement.
He said the company hoped to reach quick agreements with residents interested in receiving a settlement.
The governor said he also pressed Texas Brine leaders about reimbursing state and local agencies for their response costs. State departments have spent $8 million dealing with the sinkhole, but haven't received any reimbursement so far, Jindal said.
"They are the ones who are the responsible party. They caused the damage, and certainly we'll be aggressive in making sure they pay," the governor said.
Meanwhile, the state will create an expert study group to review issues of the long-term safety of residents who remain in the Bayou Corne area. Commission members will be named by the end of the week.
The governor had been largely absent from the public response to the sinkhole until this week, after displaced residents criticized his absence and after local media highlighted his refusal to say whether he'd check out the state's response efforts in person. Jindal plans to visit the sinkhole site next week for the first time.
He said he'd been receiving regular updates from his agency chiefs about response efforts and ongoing negotiations with Texas Brine. Jindal said he got directly involved when months had dragged on without resolution over the settlements and buyouts.
"We just finally got to the point where we said, 'Enough is enough,'" he said.