Is it fair for Team Vitter to call the 2012 environment nightmare Scott's Sinkhole as it does in a recent commercial and which it appears to be defending in a press release? Or, is Vitter candidacy slipping in the polls thus forcing its Super Pac and campaign to enable one another, throw slurs at their opposition with the hope the mud will be heavy enough to sink the other candidacies to the bottom.
Until we obtain more information, in my view, the clear answer is—what we are seeing on the TV and computer screens and hearing on our radios leave much to be desired and plenty to scrutinize or simply ignore.
For those unaware of Bayou Corne sinkhole, it is environmental horror story of a 2012 collapse of a bayou area that has devastated the lives of those living in that region. The incident is under litigation right now and facts to the contrary might emerge
For now, here is my analysis and opinion
THE VITTER ATTACKS AND ANGELLE’S RESPONSE
Recently, the Vitter SuperPac (The Fund for Louisiana’s Future), launched a TV ad attack against Scott Angelle for his regulatory role when he was Secretary of Natural Resources for the State of Louisiana. The PAC’s television ad alleges that Angelle was negligent when he was under the employ of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal as the Department of Natural Resource’s Secretary. Without stating so directly, the ad seems to suggest that Angelle deceived the public and the residents of the area by not disclosing a “failed structural” test of a Texas Brine salt dome, that appears to be the offending structure that leaked gas into the bayou region causing bubbles and quaking of the earth, which ultimately ended up causing the bayou area floor to suddenly sink taking trees and land with it.
Also, the Vitter PAC ad claimed that Angelle left the scene of the disaster, by resigning from his post at Natural Resources, roughly a week after the sinkhole incident.
After the recent TV ad run, on Monday, the Angelle campaign responded with its own counter-attacks.
Specifically, in a press release, the Angelle campaign said:
ANGELLE RESPONSE AND VITTER COUNTER
The Vitter campaign team then launched its own counter-attack. In a press release discounting Angelle’s response and supporting its own Super PAC’s claim, the campaign said:
| Scott Angelle is still running away from the Bayou Corne Sinkhole. Yesterday the Angelle Campaign sent out a long press release trying to defend Scott Angelle from his negligence and the fact that he quit his position as Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) five days after a Bayou Corne salt cavern turned into a massive sinkhole.
In 2010 the DNR had a report showing that the sinkhole posed a threat not long before residents started experiencing earthquakes. Scott Angelle and the DNR did not disclose the failed integrity test.
The convoluted Angelle rebuttal said that Scott Angelle, whose job oversees the Office of Conservation which directly reports to the Secretary, cannot by law be involved in the Office of Conservation’s operations, but then said that they could by law be involved as long as the Office of Conservation lets them know. So which is it?
Please see the below chart with 13 major news stories, some of them front page, from several months leading up to the sinkhole collapsing. The stories clearly highlight the threat and danger. Was Scott Angelle oblivious to this, or did he just not care?
APPLES AND ORANGES
To summarize, the Vitter camp is claiming that Angelle was negligent because in 2010 (facts indicate, the report actually might have been 2011), his state department DNR and he possessed a report about a salt dome structure that housed hydrocarbons, and that Angelle AND the DNR did not disclosed the failed integrity test of the salt dome. (It should be noted that the test and report occurred at least one to two years prior to the quaking but the Vitter camp claims it was “not long before residents started experiencing earthquakes”).
The facts indicate that his department did possess the “failed structural report”, however, there is a question whether Angelle or his office had any responsibility over the Office of Conservation “Conservation” and therefore, whether he would have even seen the report.
According to the Angelle campaign, that Conservation office was housed within the Department of Natural Resources but, by statute, was not allowed to have control over “Conservation” thus, Angelle did not know about the report until after the collapse occurred on August 1, 2012.
The fact that the Vitter campaign imputes actual knowledge on the part of Angelle is suggestive that it is holding the former Secretary responsible for knowing about a report and not disclosing it, therefore deceiving the public altogether and presumably causing further damage to the families at Bayou Corne.
Other than insinuations, the Vitter campaign and Funds for Louisiana’s Future have not presented any information in its ad or in its rebuttal proving that Angelle had any responsibility over “Conservation” or that he even knew about the structural test.
However, in its efforts to establish Angelle’s actual knowledge of the structural test, the Vitter campaign cites news articles related to the sudden and increasing bubbling of the bayou, gas emissions and quaking which occurred for roughly two months leading up to the August 1 collapse. It also notes that Phyllis Darensbourg, Angelle’s spokesperson was cited in two of these articles before Scott claims to have known anything. It asks, “are we to believe that she did not talk to Angelle about Bayou Corne?”
Which might be a legitimate question to ask, if it were even relevant. Thus, the apples and the oranges.
The Vitter PAC and his campaign seems to want the public to believe the apple—that, Angelle is pretending he knew nothing about the news reports (of bubbling, gas and quakes from June to July 31) that existed prior to the collapse but in reality, he had this report and failed to disclose it until after the August 1 sinkhole incident.
The truth? Angelle has never said he knew nothing about the bubbling, gas and quake symptoms which started in June 2012. It is not the pre-sinkhole symptoms he is claiming he had no prior knowledge. Instead, he is claiming he had no knowledge of the structural report (the orange), not until after the sinkhole in August 1 2012.
The symptoms (bubbling, etcc.) of a problem and a report of a salt dome structural defect (that might have caused the symptoms and the sinkhole), are two different fruits altogether. If Angelle had known of the 2011-2012 report, and if he felt the report was even relevant to the symptoms, then, it might be fair to charge him with neglect or worse, perhaps, deception. That is a big looking in a rearview mirror, IF. As facts appear to establish, the multi-state agencies and local governments had numerous possible leads that took them in many directions. At that time, there was no sinkhole, only water bubbling, gas and quaking. Still, whether the agencies would have targeted the salt dome before the sinkhole existed and before gas became apparent at the Texas Brine site on the same day as the ground collapse, is a legitimate question that will likely be decided during pending litigation. Of course, then, there would still be the question, whether actual knowledge of what was causing the bubbling, etc. would have enabled the agencies to reduce or eliminate the risks of a ground collapse.
So, if the Vitter side has actual proof that Angelle knew of the structural report, please do hopefully he will present that information for elucidation and clarification. Until then, one can only assume they don't know what they are talking about or intentionally misleading the public.
CONSERVATION VS. DNR
Then, there is the issue of whether the DNR has any control over The Office of Conservation, in the first place. Clearly, Conservation is a separate entity, as per the legislature. The scientists involved appear to be working with Conservation. The statutes above enumerate Conservation’s powers and those of the DNR Secretary, Angelle. The Angelle campaign claims the duties and responsibilities were clearly belonging to Conservation. According to Angelle’s campaign, he urged the Commissioner to uncover the source of the problem but he was limited in what he could actually do, or not do, as Conservation reported to the Governor, not to him.
Whether Angelle had any operational control over the discovery of the source of the problem and whether he had a responsibility to have all materials--such as reports of structural defects--is a factual question, requiring the determination of legislative intent of the respective powers vis a vis DNR and the Office of Conservation. However, thus far, the Vitter campaign and its PAC have not presented any information to the contrary that would indicate that Angelle had control or jurisdiction of the incident and more importantly, if he would be overstepping the chain of command between the Office of Conservation and the Office of the Governor.
The gaseous waters of the sinkhole were described by many as “Slurry”. That term also could describe the cloudy situation evolving around the efforts to diagnose the cause of the bubbles, gas smells and quakes.
Throughout the entire process neither the experts nor the government officials knew the cause of the symptoms. They knew there was a legitimate problem. They held town hall meetings, investigations involving various agencies. They suspected various factors that were later discounted and/or dismissed. Deep into the investigation and only one week prior to the actual collapse of the ground and bayou, DNR reported that a suspected gas well was not the culprit.
According to the Advocate on July 27, an article that the Vitter camp has supplied as evidence that Angelle knew about the structural report of the salt dome:
|“Louisiana Department of Natural Resources experts said they believe a well releasing natural gas near the Bayou Corne community is not the source of bubbles percolating in two northern Assumption Parish bayous, an agency official said Thursday.”|
The same Advocate article emphasized the difficulty in finding the cause of the bubbling, gas and tremors:
Since late May, the bubbling in Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou, coupled with repeated earth tremors in the vicinity, have concerned residents and prompted a series of tests of the area's oil, gas and brine production infrastructure.
But determining the source of the bayou gas releases, and any potential connection to the tremors, has remained an elusive goal.
The underground natural gas is finding a way to vent into the atmosphere, Darensbourg said, but agency officials do not know the source of the gas.
Officials are discussing the possibility of a round of publicly funded tests to compare the composition of the gases inside nearby pipelines and salt dome caverns with the releases from the bayous and at the suspected water well, Boudreaux said
An earlier round of similar, fingerprinting tests paid for by industry did not show any sort of match, Boudreaux said.
New test results show the gas being released from around the suspected water well is natural gas, he added.”
COLLPASE AND A LEAD
On August 1, the ground collapsed resulting in the sink hole. On August 4, The Advocate reported a reference to the possible cause, the Salt Dome at Bayou Corne.
“The potential failure of an inactive and plugged Texas Brine Co. LLC mining cavern in a massive salt dome is likely the cause of "a slurry area" that emerged overnight Thursday in northern Assumption Parish, state emergency preparedness and state Department of Natural Resources officials saidFriday…..
DNR officials, in consultation with scientists, determined the potential failure may have caused the slurry area, or sinkhole, which swallowed full-grown trees and denuded a formerly forested patch of cypress swamp, emergency preparedness officials said.
The slurry area may be the source of natural gas that has bubbled up on nearby bayous and from an abandoned water well, emergency preparedness officials said.
For more than two months, federal, state and parish officials had been unable to pin down the source of the natural gas releases - despite a battery of tests on the oil, gas and brine production infrastructure in the area - or the cause of earthquakes.
"Final determination of a positive link between the Texas Brine Co. cavern and either the natural gas bubbling or the slurry area has not been made," the news release from the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness says….
The slurry area is 600 feet from nearby pipelines and, from the air, a Texas Brine salt cavern wellhead could be seen nearby….
Texas Brine and other salt dome operators use salt-dome cavities left behind from mining operations to store hydrocarbons such as natural gas for companies that lease the wells, company and DNR officials have said.
Texas Brine ceased operating the cavern in 2011 and plugged and abandoned the well used to access it, state officials said.
Bob Gresser, a spokesman for Texas Brine, said employees detected a hydrocarbon odor resembling diesel around 6:30 a.m. in the vicinity of a plugged well tied to a salt cavern. (our emphasis)
He said company officials are cooperating with authorities.
The area's formation - which parish officials initially described as a sinkhole - was also accompanied early Friday by a slight diesel smell in the area that has since dissipated, parish officials said.
The odor prompted parish officials to call in a variety of state agencies Friday morning.
Bob Gresser, a spokesman for Houston-based Texas Brine, said employees detected a hydrocarbon smell resembling diesel in the vicinity of a plugged well tied to a salt cavern around 6:30 a.m.
Gresser said company officials do not believe the smell was emanating from the well, which has been out of service for two years. He said they believe it was coming from the "slurry area," although that is still under investigation.
He said the brine facility is operating normally and the company is cooperating with authorities.
A brine facility mines salt from the Napoleonville dome and then stores hydrocarbons such as natural gas in the caverns that remain after mining is completed.
Natural gas has been seeping up from Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou, which run below and along the side of the reported "slurry area." A suspected water well in the same area has also been venting natural gas.
Currently, most of the documentation about the letter in question appears to be missing from the Internet, suggestive of evidence of it being used in litigation.
However, one remnant can be found:
2011 letter evidences cavern near sinkhole failed integrity test
According to Mitchell, Texas Brine Co. Saltville LLC president Mark J. Cartwright informed DNR in a January 21, 2011 letter about a failed integrity test of the cavern and company officials’ suspicion that the cavern possibly breached Napoleonville Dome’s outer wall, possibly explaining a loss of pressure in the cavern during the test.
“One obvious concern is the cavern’s proximity to the edge of salt,” Cartwright wrote to DNR’s Joseph “Joe” S. Ball Jr., director of DNR Injection and Mining Division that oversees salt caverns. “There have been several studies in this regard, and Texas Brine has mapped the salt boundary near the cavern applying available well log data, seismic data, and most recently, vertical seismic data gathered during the workover. At this time, a breach out of the salt dome appears possible.” (our emphasis)
Texas Brine officials met with DNR officials on Jan. 21, 2011 about their work on the salt cavern that may have failed, DNR records show.
Friday evening, the day the sinkhole developed and released a foul diesel odor was the first time DNR officials made public information indicating that the cavern may have failed and caused the sinkhole, a “slurry area.” (our emphasis)
Tuesday night, DNR and Texas Brine officials explained that the cavern appeared closer to Napoleonville Dome’s edge than thought when the cavern was issued a state permit 1982, and that the cavern wall might have been breached. That failure could allow a connection between the cavern’s brine contents and sediments around the dome.
The 160,000 square foot sinkhole is filled mainly with salty water and, has traces of diesel mixed with mud and vegetation on its surface. Officials have explained that diesel is floated on top of brine in salt caverns to prevent unwanted erosion.
DNR officials speculated natural gas that accumulates in salt formations, was released, accounting for the bubbles.
“The January 2011 Texas Brine letter served as formal notification to DNR of the problems that led to the cavern well being plugged in June 2011, but Texas Brine officials had been examining the cavern’s wall at least since June 2010, DNR records show,” the Advocate reports.
In early September 2010, Texas Brine began reworking its cavern well, milling a section of salt higher than the existing cavern roof, at 3,400 feet deep, to see if the upper strata could be mined. DNR’s permit for that work was issued in May 2010.
Officials say they are surprised, not hiding information from the public
Wednesday, Ball explained that officials believe that area extending approximately 100 feet through the well casing above the cavern roof might be the source of the possible salt dome wall breach. DNR officials defended its managing the issue and the Bayou Corne disaster area investigation. They say the agency followed evidence that started with natural gas bubbles seen directly over a natural gas pipeline corridor under Bayou Corne and only recently turned to the slurry area.
Ball said DNR officials focused on locating a source of the natural gas large enough to send gas bubbling up in the bayous and they focused on area natural gas pipelines and two salt caverns known to be storing natural gas under pressure.
“We were looking for a single gas source. We never anticipated that gas that would naturally accumulate in a cavern would have that much driving force behind it to move gas so far away from it,” said Ball of the DNR. “That is why we never focused on anything other than the two caverns that stored natural gas under high pressure.”
Ball said DNR officials first started looking at Texas Brine’s cavern a few days before the sinkhole developed, when seismic data from the U.S. Geological Survey indicated earthquakes appeared to be coming from the area near what would become a sinkhole.
Asked if he could see how some might see DNR as hiding information with the disclosure of the letter, Ball replied, “Yes, I can, but you are playing Monday morning quarterback. That is always going happen.”
Sonny Cranch, spokesman for Texas Brine, said company officials did not make the connection between the observations described in Cartwright’s letter and the events of the past few months in Bayou Corne.
“There still may not be connection,” Cranch said. “I’m serious. This collapse is as much a surprise to Texas Brine as anybody else.”
Cartwright’s letter was found in a review Wednesday of DNR regulatory files for the cavern. Ball and other DNR officials provided the files Wednesday at agency offices in Baton Rouge after a verbal request earlier this week.
John Boudreaux, director of the parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and incident commander for the Bayou Corne disaster, said he was not informed about possible problems with the salt cavern until Friday after the sinkhole emerged.
Boudreaux, who began fielding calls about 6 a.m. Friday about the diesel smell, determined a half-hour later to be from the sinkhole, said the Texas Brine letter is news to him.
“They have never told me anything," he said. "We have been fighting this since it began, and this is very concerning to me."
John Achee Jr., community activist running two Facebook sites that have become community forums on the Bayou Corne disaster, said, “I know that this was certainly a possibility, but I am kind of shocked to be honest with you.”
Thursday, Barbara Levy commented on Facebook, “I would get outta there just as fast as my legs would carry me!”
It is important to note that the Parish of Homeland Security and Emergencyy Preparedness also did know of the structural defect letter. Also, Ball was “DNR’s Joseph “Joe” S. Ball Jr., director of DNR Injection and Mining Division”. The DNR Injection and Mining Division falls under the auspices of the Office of Conservation. Ball said:
|“We were looking for a single gas source. We never anticipated that gas that would naturally accumulate in a cavern would have that much driving force behind it to move gas so far away from it,” said Ball of the DNR. “That is why we never focused on anything other than the two caverns that stored natural gas under high pressure.”|
Did Angelle know about the letter, since Ball, who was with Office of Conservation, apparently did not know it was even relevant and that Homeland Security did not know it existed?
All of this appears to be a question of fact still needing to be determined. If the Vitter Campaign or the Super PAC knows more, it should disclose since it is charging Vitter with negligence and suggesting he is covering up his actual knowledge. Likewise, it would be helpful for Angelle to provide more details about his activities and any prior knowledge of the letter.
Interestingly, whether it be politics or trying to set the record straight, enter early this week, the President of the Police Jury, Martin Triche, who played a major role during the Bayou Corne sinkhole crises. In a letter dated Monday, Triche defended Angelle’s presence, his involvement and claims that Angelle offered his full cooperation despite a “unique law making this the responsibility of the Commission of Conservation. Triche also slammed Vitter claiming Angelle was there before Vitter “even bothered to call”. Triche claims that Vitter was “not there for our residents and when Scott was, and he never personally reached out to me to offer assistance.”
Did Vitter or his office, other than being one of the two Louisiana US Senators have a role here too? His campaign noted that Angelle should have had knowledge about the news reports related to the Bayou Corne problems preceding the sinkhole development. He did have knowledge of those symptoms which led to the August 1 2012 sinkhole. Again, he insists he was not charged with the responsibility, as it was the obligation of “Conservation”. Regardless, those are facts that need to be determined as to the statutory and administrative restrictions Angelle might have faced prior to the ground collapse. One could argue however, that Vitter and his office, might likewise have had some responsibility too. During the time in question, Vitter happened to be a member of the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (Public works refers to infrastructure). The subcommittees are “Clean Air and Nuclear Safety”, “Fisheries, waters and wildlife”, “Superfund, Waste Management and Regulatory Oversight”, and “Transportation and Infrastructure”. Exactly, what he or his office could have done is unclear, but there is little doubt that his committee position put him in a much better position of greater jurisdiction and resources over the facts and events related to discovering Bayou Corne's concerns.
Did Angelle leave the scene of the disaster as the Vitter campaign and PAC claim? The ad quotes The Advocate which said, “Angelle resigned Wednesday without giving a reason”. The voiceover said, “Angelle suddenly resigns, taking no responsibility”. The ad closes by saying, Scott’s record, “Quitting on Louisiana, Negligence, Scott’s Sinkhole”. The Vitter campaign press release likewise cited Angelle’s "resigning without reason".
On August 7 2012, Angelle was appointed to the Louisiana Board of Regents. The following day, NOLA.com published:
|“The administration's statement on Angelle's resignation does not give a reason for his decision. However, the Baton Rouge Business Report cites sources close to Angelle who said he is planning to run for a seat on the Public Service Commission. The commission is in charge of utility regulation and is often seen as a stepping stone to higher office.”|
It had been no mystery that prior to his resignation, Angelle was engaging in fundraising for a run of public office and on June 2 2012, prior to the sinkhole collapse, it was reported that he was eyeing the seat. Four months after he resigned, he won an open seat for the PSC spot.
Obviously, being employed in a fulltime job such as Secretary of DNR is not as strenuous or time consuming as being one of the members of the Board of Regents, a part-time responsibility he could handle while still launching his campaign. He has said that he and his family had made a decision before the sinkhole event to resign and run for office. Could he have remained at DNR and still run and win the PSC seat? Possibly and arguably yes. Does it look bad to abandon a crises situation to take an appointive seat and then use it to run for an office? Yes. Might it be legitimate criticism for his making this career decision at that time? I believe yes. The timing probably is not what would have been ideal for him or for any candidate. He must take his lumps for that decision and in retrospect, it is difficult to determine if he made the right or the wrong choice. But, is it evidence that he, as Vitter group is implying, was running from a tragedy, to hide from the fallout?
Yes, but, only evidence. I believe the facts, so far, offer another reason, his plans to run for office and his interest to be able to do so, occupying a less intense job.
We are seeing TV, radio and other ads inundating us at each turn of the dial. Most of them are making claims which are not and which cannot be substantiated. The Bayou Corne Vitter Super PAC ad and the Vitter press release, I am sure, is not and will not be the only negative ad hitting the airwaves that appears to be intentionally designed to make opponents look like they have been bathing in slurry soup of incompetence and deception.
Perhaps we should believe none of the ad offerings that are obviously created to sell us this dirty soap. Unfortunately, in the age of unlimited amounts of money being spent to create “hit piece” ads that hit the channels, make a statement and then depart without any questions asked, many of us will be making important election decisions based upon raw emotions, not fact.
This is what our candidates and their PACs are feeding us.
The question to ask, how much of this are we willing to eat--before saying, no, you're giving me a stomach ache and I’m no longer hungry.