By Emilee Theriot
On August 3, 2012, a sinkhole developed near the Napoleonville salt dome in Assumption Parish. After the sinkhole emerged, various parties filed lawsuits. Now, with the 8th anniversary of the Napoleonville salt dome sinkhole approaching, the legal battle is not done.
“In all of my years working at the First Circuit, I have never experienced so many appeals from one incident,” says Rodd Naquin, the clerk of court for the First Circuit Court of Appeal.
The lawsuits were filed by locals and businesses to recover out-of-pocket expenses, loss of profits and loss of business, among other damages. Local governmental entities, like the Assumption Parish Police Jury and the Assumption Parish Sheriff, sued to recover the cost to respond and monitor the sinkhole until the environmental disaster was brought under control.
Various pipelines and drilling companies brought separate lawsuits against Texas Brine. In each of the lawsuits, the pipeline companies sought to recover damages to their respective inoperable pipelines due to the alleged negligence of Texas Brine’s operation of a brine production known as the OxyGeismer #3 well (OG3). Texas Brine responded to each lawsuit by asserting claims against various parties, seeking recovery for its own damages in the form of reimbursement expense for environmental response cost, litigation expense and lost profits.
According to legal documents, Texas Brine began drilling and operating the OG3 well on property Occidental Chemical Corporation owned in 1982. Texas Brine was the sole operator of the well, which was solution-mined for almost thirty years. Texas Brine’s operation of the well provided brine to a plant owned by Legacy Vulcan Corporation (Vulcan). The OG3 well continued to expand the size of the cavern until it approached the Napoleonville Salt Dome’s western edge.
A trial was held in Assumption Parish in the fall of 2017 to determine what caused the sinkhole to form and who, if anyone, was at fault. The evidence presented at trial established that the 2012 sinkhole was caused by three primary factors: the proximity of the OG3 cavern to the edge of the Napoleonville salt dome wall, a leak in the OG3 cavern, the plugging and abandoning of the OG3 well and cavern without continued monitoring of the loss of brine and reduction in pressure in the well and cavern.
The trial court found the close proximity of the OG3 cavern to the edge of the Napoleonville salt dome was a substantial factor in causing the sinkhole. The close proximity allowed for the solution mining operations to create a thin cavern wall at the salt dome’s western edge
At the time of Texas Brine’s drilling in 1982, Hook Chemical Corporation, now known as Occidental Chemical Corporation, owned the land. Vulcan was the mineral lessee of the salt dome, and Texas Brine was the operator of the well. According to the written reasons of the trial judge, the evidence showed that both Texas Brine and Vulcan knew, before the drilling of the well, that the salt dome’s edge was a serious issue that would require the parties to proceed with caution. With Vulcan and Texas Brine fully aware of the edge of dome concerns, Texas Brine continued to supply brine to Vulcan at an accelerated rate until Vulcan sold its interest in the salt dome to Oxychem in 2005.
In its written reasons for judgment, the trial court pointed out in June 2008, Oxychem’s expert recommended that Oxychem terminate mining the OG3 cavern and expressed concerns of environmental risk, including the remote possibility of a sinkhole. Oxychem discussed the expert’s recommendations with Texas Brine and both parties possessed the authority to immediately terminate the OG3 operation. The trial court found both parties placed financial and business interests above environmental concerns.
The OG3 well was plugged and abandoned in early June 2011. The trial court noted in its reasons for judgment that both Texas Brine and Oxychem failed to prudently monitor the OG3 well by not assuring that the OG3 well cavern reached pressure equilibrium before plugging and abandoning. The trial court found the evidence showed Texas Brine and Oxychem were equally responsible for the untimely plugging and abandoning of the OG3 cavern and its contribution to causing the Napoleonville salt dome sinkhole.
“A common theme of this case is that Oxychem, Texas Brine, and Vulcan each placed their economic interests over environmental and safety concerns,” says Trial Judge Thomas Kliebert, Jr.
The warning signs were present for each party; however, each party was affected by the financial implications of their actions.
On December 21, 2017, the trial court signed a judgment allocating fault as follows: Oxychem was assigned 50 percent of fault, Texas Brine was assigned 35 percent of fault and Vulcan was assigned 15 percent of fault.
The trial court assigned the most fault to Oxychem because the court found Oxychem possessed superior capacity over Texas Brine and Vulcan to prevent the Napoleonville salt dome sinkhole. Texas Brine was allocated a significant percentage of fault for negligently operating the OG3 well/cavern system and Vulcan was assigned the least percentage of fault for its actions in the early stages of the OG3 well.
The judgment of the trial court did not end the sinkhole litigation. The parties have appealed the trial court’s ruling. Various appeals are pending at the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal. According to Naquin, the sinkhole incident accounted for 80 appeals and 255 writs.
“To put that into perspective, one must understand the First Circuit Court of Appeal hears appeals from 16 parishes. On an average month, we may receive 80 writs from all of the 16 parishes. For the sinkhole incident, we received 255 writs,” says Judge Mitchell Theriot of Lafourche Parish, one of twelve judges that sits on the First Circuit Court of Appeal.
A three-judge panel of the court typically hears thirty appeals from all sixteen parishes in one sitting. “This one incident produced eighty appeals. That clearly shows the magnitude and the volume of legal activity this one incident in Assumption Parish produced,” Theriot says.
Not only did the appeals consist of large amounts vocalizing their concern, but it led to a large collection of legal documents, too.
Theriot says, “The sheer volume of pleadings and legal documents received from this one incident required the court to convert an entire room at the courthouse to store the hundreds of boxes of paperwork that have been filed by the various parties.
I would say you have three to five years of litigation before it is all said and done.”