Sep 12 9:00 PM

In Louisiana’s 'Cancer Alley,' growing sinkhole creates more concerns

A scene from a home in the southern bayous in Bayou Corne, La., where residents evacuated after a sinkhole opened up less than a mile from their doors.
America Tonight

Update: Jan. 15, 2014: The monster sinkhole in Bayou Corne, La., is still hungry. Now 26 acres wide and 750 feet deep, the gurgling cavern gave an epic belch early last week, a possible reaction to an earthquake off the coast of Puerto Rico. Back in September, America Tonight visited the community in an area known as "Cancer Alley," named for the 150 petrochemical companies and 17 refineries that line the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.

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To live in southern Louisiana today is to know the pain of displacement and fear of a disappearing coast.

America Tonight traveled to the southern bayous to visit homes in Bayou Corne, recently evacuated after a sinkhole opened up less than a mile from their doors. We were moved by what we saw in this beautiful community, about an hour southwest of Baton Rouge.

At an organizing meeting at a library, residents spoke of “scars on top of scars” from both the loss of their homes and the health risks they face in an area they call “Cancer Alley.”

More than 150 petrochemical companies and 17 refineries are located along the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Environmental scientists told us that this industry releases dangerous levels of toxic chemicals into the air and water.

Scenes from the sinkhole

“When you look at Louisiana, there’s just this maze of all of these industries,” said Wilma Subra, a chemist and MacArthur fellow, who has supported Bayou Corne residents in their efforts to fight for their homes. “All of the drilling and production, the pipelines, and now the export. There’s almost not a spot you could put your finger down on a map and say ‘this spot is not being impacted by the oil and gas industry in Louisiana.’”

Along the coast, the canals dug for the pipelines have brought saltwater into freshwater marshes, contributing to the coastal erosion that sees Louisiana lose a football field of land off its coast every 45 minutes. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost an amount of land equivalent to the size of Delaware.

In Bayou Corne, the ground under their feet contains a salt dome, and local industry has drilled down to extract brine used in chemical processing. The wall collapsed in a salt cavern, located a mile beneath the earth, sediment rushed in, and the land on the surface started sinking, swallowing entire trees in seconds. The hole is now 25 acres across and 750 feet deep, and continues to grow. But more dangerous than the sinking land is what is rising up – millions of cubic feet of gases floating on the aquifer under people’s homes and migrating to the surface.

The residents of Bayou Corne fear they will face the same fate as the neighboring town of Grand Bayou, now empty after a methane leak from a well owned by a Dow Chemical facility forced a permanent evacuation. Residents also speak of Lake Peigneur, about 45 minutes away. A 1980 sinkhole there is still causing problems for residents, who complain of gas rising up near their homes.

“Louisiana is the heart of the petrochemical beast,” said Anne Rofles, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental health and justice organization. She added that state regulators are too close to industry, that industry lobbyists have too much power and that state politicians are afraid to question the status quo.

Dozens of towns and neighborhoods have been lost to chemical contamination. While displacement and devastation is a fear across the Gulf Coast, many of the worst cases happened in communities that are mostly African-American. For example, free former slaves founded the town of Mossville, La., in the 1790s. Fourteen facilities that manufacture, process, store, and discharge toxic or hazardous substances are located within the small area. Ninety-one percent of residents reported at least one health problem related to exposure to chemicals produced by the local industry.

The Louisiana towns of Diamond, Morrisonville, Sunrise, and Revilletown all met similar fates. Diamond, founded by the descendants of the participants of the 1811 Rebellion to End Slavery, the largest slave uprising in US history, was relocated by Shell in 2002, after residents had faced decades of toxic exposure. Morrisonville, established by free Africans in 1790, was bought out by Dow in 1989. Residents of Sunrise, inaugurated near Baton Rouge by former slaves in 1874, were paid to move as the result of a lawsuit against the Placid Refining Company. In the mid-1990s, chemical producer Georgia Gulf Corporation poisoned and then acquired Revilletown, a town that recently freed black families had started in the years after the Civil War.

To see the ways that the state of Louisiana has tied its future to oil and gas, visit Morgan City in late August. Since 1936, locals have celebrated the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. But do those two things really belong together? Can Louisiana really maintain itself as the US capital of both seafood and petrochemical production? This is the question we asked as we spoke to scientists and representatives of the state Department of Natural Resources, and from Texas Brine, a mining company active nearby.

“I used to believe in our government,” Bayou Corne resident Michael Schaff said. “I voted for [Gov.] Bobby Jindal both times. I figured that our government agencies, the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Quality, were people that looked out for us. I've since found out that's totally incorrect.”

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