“They goin’ down,” John Boudreaux recalls telling a colleague as he recorded the watery cataclysm unfolding before him with an iPhone camera.
“They” were a grove of cypress trees; “down” was into a sinkhole in rural Louisiana that had steadily grown to a depth of several hundred feet of fetid water – and was in the throes of a violent growth spurt.
Boudreaux’s video, posted on YouTube in late August, went viral in the way that recordings of disaster tend to, leading to alarmist headlines: e.g., “Mining Madness: 750-Foot-Deep Sinkhole Swallows Louisiana Town.”
That sinkhole was then a year old, and Boudreaux, an emergency response official, had filmed it several times by then, though never before had he captured it burping with such violence, sending combustible methane up through fractures in the earth while sucking down trees and soil. Boudreaux is not surprised that his video has spurred widespread fascination. Speaking to Newsweek from the town of Bayou Corne, which has been largely emptied as the sinkhole gnaws away at its borders, he says, “How often do you see a tree go straight down?”
So far, there hasn’t been a fiery explosion. But, in addition to consuming all those trees, the sinkhole has caused small earthquakes and spewed gas and oil. And it’s still growing. State officials estimate it will expand from its current size of about 26 acres to at least 40 acres over the next several years. If, while doing so, it breaks through a modest earthen barrier, it will poison the waters of Bayou Corne, forever spoiling these verdant banks.
Once a rural paradise, Bayou Corne could become a ghost town as a result of a man-made ulcer whose depths defy understanding.
Cancer Alley, a stretch of about 100 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is home to some 150 petrochemical plants, making these swamplands perhaps the most industrialized (and polluted) region in the United States.
The latest plague ravaging Cancer Alley is that enormous sinkhole in Assumption Parish, a burgeoning cavity that is a pestilence both real and symbolic, relentlessly swallowing land while reminding residents of the despoliation the past 60 years have inflicted on their sinuous bayous and abundant cypress groves.
As Bayou Corne’s citizens abandon their homes, fleeing the specters of methane and vandals and depressed home values, they stand to become yet another Louisiana community sacrificed to the twin gods of oil and gas.
“It’s like a science-fiction movie,” says Marylee Orr, who heads the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which she runs out of a ranch-style home in Baton Rouge decorated with Kennedy brothers memorabilia (as well as a 1990 cover of Newsweek bemoaning the plight of “Huck’s River” – i.e., the Mississippi).
She and other activists are doggedly following the efforts of Texas Brine – the mining company responsible for the sinkhole – to contain the damage and compensate the working-class residents of Bayou Corne, many of whom own little beyond what is now irredeemably ravaged land. At the same time, she and the so-called Green Army of retired Army Lieutenant General Russel Honoré are desperate to end a long-standing laxity toward energy companies, one that gave rise to the quip that the flag of Texaco flies above the state capitol building in Baton Rouge.
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