Sinkholes: The hole truth

An oil and gas service company called Texas Brine was drilling into a massive underground salt deposit near Bayou Corne. The excavation caused the sidewall of a salt dome to collapse. Three months later, the sinkhole opened.

"We don't have a complete understanding of why that failure occurred," said Bruce Martin, vice-president for operations at Texas Brine. He says his company has drilled 30 relief wells trying to contain and burn off natural gas leaking from the sinkhole into the aquifer.

Martin believes the sinkhole will never threaten the homes in Bayou Corne. But the company, pressured by the state of Louisiana, is preparing buyout offers for all the residents.

"I understand why the homeowners are upset; I would be upset if that was my home over there, too," said Martin. "The response has been very challenging. It's been an all-encompassing, full-frontal assault for the past eight months, and I think we're starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel that it's coming to an end."

But Martin also admits the sinkhole could continue to grow for another year or two.

"When is this going to end? Is it going to end correctly? My concern is about, will it happen again?" said Marylee Orr, the executive director of LEAN, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

The group says Bayou Corne's disaster should be a warning to other communities about developing in sinkhole-prone areas.

"Sadly, we do have sinkhole potential here, and we really want to make sure that there are buffer zones -- that there are no homes, or nursing homes or schools or hospitals anywhere near these salt domes," said Orr. "So there won't be another community like Bayou Corne, I hope, here in Louisiana to suffer the kind of heartache they have."

John Arthur, Florida's state geologist, says states could map land surfaces for their sinkhole risks and, where needed, toughen construction codes.

If a home is built in a sinkhole-prone area, Strassmann asked, is there anything that can be done to prevent a collapse?

"There's always a way to mitigate that risk," said Arthur. "You can grout inject and fill that hole and make the land more stable. It's a combination of geology and engineering that can hold the key to that answer."

Texas Brine has been paying residents in Bayou Corne $875 a week to cover temporary housing costs. Buyout offers are expected in the next couple weeks.

But Nick Romero says trust between residents like him and the company has collapsed, like the sinkhole.

He wants to stay, but he's torn between two loves: "My wife has had cancer twice, and she doesn't want to be here, and I don't blame her. And I'm not going to force her to stay here. So we've looked for other places to go, but until that time, I'm staying here. I'm not going anywhere."

"You love your house, you love your wife more," said Strassmann.

"Yeah, yeah."

The last thing the Romeros ever thought would be their major worry in retirement . . . was a sinkhole.

For more info: