This Louisiana Sinkhole Shows Us What The Environment Under Trump Will Look Like
As Trump pushes oil pipelines forward, we’re offered a grim vision of pending disasters.
Standing on the verge of the Bayou Corne Sinkhole, I can see methane gas bubbling up to the water’s surface, forming what could be mistaken for a cool, quaint drinking well if it weren’t for a thin layer of iridescent oil simmering on top of it. Sonny Cranch, my official guide through the man-made and still-growing hole in the earth, laughs when I take a picture of it.
“See,” he says, “now you’re going to show that picture to everybody and say, ‘Look at all the oil.’ When there’s not that much oil at all, really.”
A week earlier, Cranch — who runs a crisis communications and public relations firm in Baton Rouge — had agreed to take me on a tour of the sinkhole that Texas Brine Company created by mining too close to the wall of a massive salt dome under the swamp a little more than a year ago; he represents them.
In the middle of a clearing, I wear a life vest to walk around on dry land with a reflective vest on top, and a hard hat on my head. A neon orange snake wraps around the perimeter of the sinkhole to designate between where land ends and water begins. I have no idea what I’m looking at. “That contains the oil and keeps it from contaminating the water supply,” Cranch says. “We built this berm to contain the situation as best we could.”
When the land gave way to the water underneath it, more and more marshland started falling in, weakening an already fragile coastal barrier and threatening nearby homes and roads. Cranch grunted over the phone when I told him Sunday was the only day I could come, since that’s his church day and I’d prevent him from his worship, but he decided that a member of the press finally getting Texas Brine’s story right was more important than his weekly ritual. He met me at the intersection of Sauce Piquante Road and Gumbo Street — names so stereotypical they felt like a gift — in a Louisiana camping village an hour and a half north of New Orleans.
Cranch is a short but ferociously handsome man with the kind of gallantry-despite-stature that my friend Forde calls “Miniature Hollywood.” He sports a neatly trimmed white mustache and a head of swirling gray hair and, aware that I’m taking photographs, frequently turns so that his profile faces me, peering into the distance like a hunting dog who’s just eyed a rabbit. His cheekbones are high and tanned and the photos, I know, will do him justice.
A lot of Louisiana sits on these ancient salt formations, and there’s mostly oil beneath them, but Texas Brine was mining salt used for the kind of chemical manufacturing that produces the plastic products we use every day. Brining companies often come in after oil companies have capped their wells to drill new wells and suck up the brine that’s under the land.
“That camera lens has some of this brine in it,” Cranch reminds me as I lift my camera up to my eye again; he’s hoping to slow me down before I race back to New Orleans to file an egregious story damning salt excavators and waxing nostalgic about the beauty of the swamp pre-environmental warfare.
Louisiana is sinking and it’s all our faults, but lately Big Oil has wreaked so much havoc on the state’s marshland, dredging canals through cypress trees and blowing up the Macondo Prospect — which led to the BP oil spill — that it’s harder and harder to blame ourselves and our air-conditioning systems for the damage we see every day.
And now, Big Oil is poised to become even more powerful; just yesterday, President Trump ordered the rapid completion of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. What environmental disasters could await in the coming years? What land could be ravaged next?
“TURN OFF the lights when you leave,” I learned from my eighth grade environmental science teacher. “WALK if it’s a short distance. KNOW what you need BEFORE you open the refrigerator door.” These were commands I took serious as death. After Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures of August 2005, I pinned a blank sheet of paper and a pen above the kitchen trashcan and forced my family to write down each item we threw away. I plastered the walls of my bedroom with quotes from Walden, interspersed — because I was a 17-year-old — with pictures of celebrities that Thoreau would have loathed.
Each year before Mardi Gras, we hauled our Christmas tree out to the curb so that it could be dumped in the swamp with a thousand others to solidify the soil and prevent coastal erosion. I always loved that image: the coast of Louisiana lined with the glimmer of leftover tinsel.
But two years after the storm, I flew over Louisiana and the view from above made me stop caring. What I saw looked so bad, I felt my heart give out and give up. Perfectly straight canals ran like pinstripes through the swamp; the native trees looked sick of trying to hold on. If it was us against Big Oil, Big Oil had won, and it was time to find another worthy battle.
Corne is French for antler. The homes and summerhouses here sit just beyond the bayou in one of the antler’s branches — mini-mansions built on the cheap lounge beside old Louisiana fishing camps protected from the sinkhole by a swath of muddy, meandering land. Despite the buffer, the state mandated an evacuation in August of 2013, in case the sinkhole continued to grow.
Which it did. The state didn’t lift the mandatory evacuation until October of 2016.
When Cranch begins his tour of the residential neighborhood, he points out the families who stayed — about a third of the community. We look out the window of his truck to see men taking their boats out into the swamp to fish. Others are walking to the local tackle shop, dressed in camouflage with big yellow dogs at their feet. “Life’s just normal,” Cranch says. “That’s why I wanted you to come out here and see it.” He picks up a packet of sunflower seeds from the cup holder and offers me a handful.
“It sounds a lot worse than it feels.” And then neither of us says anything for a while. I look at him, and he’s using one of the undamaged seeds to pick out the remains of one he’s already chewed — it’s stuck in his teeth.
In the 1980s, petroleum companies came to Bayou Corne and drilled for oil. When they’d gotten all the oil they could from the mine, they capped the well and sold the land to Texas Brine in 1976. When the salt mine collapsed last year, residual oil leftover from the petroleum companies started to burp up from below. There was a sharp smell like hot tar that leaked through the town’s windows in the middle of the night: the first sign that something was wrong.
At the crack of dawn a few days later, employees of Texas Brine, sleeping in fishing camps along the inner edges of the antler, heard the slap of a 100-year-old cypress tree hit the open water. They stumbled out of bed to find 25 acres of marshland gone. It was under water, and trees were still falling in, slowly undertaken by the subsidence of the land that held their roots. Water stretched to the horizon.
Cranch starts most sentences with, “What most of the media gets wrong,” and this doesn’t offend me, since I know how easy it is to get something wrong, but more importantly because his aggression makes my job much simpler. I appreciate each and every on-the-record opportunity Cranch gives me that fits the story I’m here to write: Brine company, bad. Sinkhole, worse. Brine company must pay.
“You can take as many pictures as you want,” says Cranch, “though I’d imagine you’ll want to see what you’re looking at without the lens in the way, too.” He pulls each word out in an exaggerated drawl that’s both accusatory and craftily, conspiratorially, kind. This is familiar to me; this is how people in Louisiana get you to do things you do not want to do. It’s the same voice my grandmother uses when she tells me to set the table, and it’s the same voice I can imagine her mother using in Lake Charles a hundred years ago, telling her to set the same table, with the same china and the same silverware. “You don’t have to set the table,” she’d say, looking up from an old fashioned, “but you’ve been sitting around all day and I’d think you’d want to stretch your legs.”
It is the drawl of conviction and pomp, and it’s the accent of my inner voice as I talk to Cranch — even if, thanks to television and growing up in a port city, he can’t hear it.
Later I learn Cranch is involved in a highly publicized legal battle that has nothing to do with Texas Brine or the sinkhole but, rather, A Confederacy of Dunces. He’s been trying to get the rights to the book for a decade now (he is most certainly not alone), hoping to make it into a Broadway-style musical with a worldwide premiere in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I almost literally cannot believe this. When I call ask him to ask about it he gets irritable and asks me why on earth such a thing would ever be relevant. He has a point, I think, but so do I. This moment remains part of my unraveling the complicated snarls of expectations when they meet an objection; I am trying to understand how a person like Sonny could, a la Whitman, contain multitudes.
Cranch’s version of events is simple: Texas Brine isn’t responsible for the collapse of the mine, since it reinforced its cavern with cement a decade ago. But for a crisis it didn’t cause — a mere accident in the land the company happens to operate — he believes Texas Brine has responded with a world-class example of philanthropic aid, buying out the homes of people who wanted to leave and making the sinkhole safer for those who wanted to stay.
In front of us, a small white bird lands on the neon containment boom. I take some more pictures and write down the word “egret.” When I get back to New Orleans, I can’t remember what it means, but at the time, the bird’s white feathers silhouetted against the rubber hoses feels like stark evidence of wreckage.
The bird’s white feathers silhouetted against the rubber hoses feels like stark evidence of wreckage.
“Here comes Airboat Johnny,” says Cranch, waving his hands at a truck driving across the berm. A young, badly sunburned man drives up to us and throws his truck in park just before his front wheels touch the water.
“Airboat Johnny,” he says, sticking his hand out of the window. I shake the hand and tell him my name and that I’m a reporter from New Orleans.
“Is that right? Well, you’re in the best of hands,” he says, sticking his head out the window. He turns to Cranch. “Did you see that new oil deposit over the West side?”
I hear this and feel lucky, and I try not to smile. Airboat Johnny must see me notice something because he says, without any buildup, “My, my, Ms. Riess. You sure do have pretty eyes.”
This works at effectively distracting me; before I can ask about a new oil deposit, Airboat Johnny takes out his cellphone, snaps a picture of me, laughs, and puts the truck in reverse.
“Strange guy,” says Cranch.
Above us a half dozen small gas flares blow flames into the air.
The day after the sinkhole swallowed the swamp, workers for Texas Brine skimmed 7,000 barrels of oil off the water’s surface. When I almost choke on that number, Cranch tells me it’s a drop in a bucket. “Most oil companies suck more than that out in a day,” he says.
Cranch comes from an engineering family and has seen and handled real environmental disasters. This, he says, is not one of them.
I have been alive for half as long as he’s been working in the field. I haven’t seen many disasters. This, it seems, is one of them.
The tour is over and I haven’t learned anything. I have disconnected words written in my notebook (“sky,” “pink,” “birds”) and about a third of the conviction I had before I drove out to the swamp. I think I know too much to learn anything new at all.
I haven’t seen many disasters. This, it seems, is one of them.
As we’re leaving the sinkhole, driving back into town, we pass hundreds of lavender-colored flowers with big spikes coming from their petals and leaves. I ask Cranch to pull over so that I can take a picture, and I jump out and aim my lens right at the center of the plant’s head, taking a hundred photos of what I think a plant born of money-at-whatever-cost must look like. This demonic plant, I think, grows right out of the oil, stained with poisonous chemicals that dry out its reproductive parts and turn them into weapons.
Turns out they were thistles. I had never seen a thistle before.