A Forgotten Catastrophe

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful lake…

Once upon a time, in the state of Louisiana, there was a beautiful freshwater lake called Lake Peigneur. It was about 10 feet deep, and covered about 10 square miles. It was a popular place to go fishing, and there was a botanical garden called Live Oak on its shores.

Unfortunately, humans, being what they are, couldn’t leave well enough alone. There was also a salt dome beneath the lake, and therefore the Diamond Crystal Salt Company created a salt mine there in 1919. Well, there’s no question that we all need salt to survive. But we’ve gotten it into our heads that we need oil to survive as well. That mistaken idea is what caused the Lake Peigneur disaster in 1980.

You see, Texaco had decided that drilling for oil on Lake Peigneur would be a financial boon to that company, because, you know, “drill, baby, drill.” And so they did. But due to a foolish miscalculation, they accidentally drilled right into the salt dome itself.

It’s really rather astonishing what happens when you drill a 14 inch wide hole through the floor of a lake and into a huge empty cavern below. Check out this history channel video that tells you all about it. The first thing that happened was that the drilling platform tilted, and the Texaco employees barely escaped with their lives. Then the salt mine began to fill with water, but thanks to an excellent evacuation plan, all 55 miners managed to escape as well.

Soon, that hole had turned into a whirlpool, and the entire drilling platform disappeared into what had been just 10 feet of water only moments before. Soon to follow were 11 barges and a tugboat that had been floating nearby. With them went trees, and 65 acres of land, including the botanical garden.

A fisherman who had been enjoying a tranquil day on the water only managed to survive because one of the barges temporarily blocked the hole and gave him just enough time to motor away and scramble to shore, only to watch his boat disappear along with, one assumes, the catch of the day.

Oh, but it gets worse. This maelstrom caused the Delcambre Canal, which usually drains out of the lake, to reverse course and empty brackish water into the void. For about a day, the lake was the site of Louisiana’s highest waterfall, measuring 164 feet. In addition, 400 foot geysers erupted, as the trapped air from the salt mine escaped.

It took two days for the water to stop rushing into the void. Once the pressure was equalized, 9 of the barges popped back up to the surface. The rest of what had been sucked in was never seen again.

Today, Lake Peigneur, once a 10 foot deep, fresh water lake, is now a 200 foot deep saltwater lake, with all the resulting ecological changes that that implies. You can still see a chimney sticking up from what remains of a house that sank below the waves, but other than that, you might never know there once was an environmental catastrophe here.

Oh, but it gets better. Texaco had to pay 32 million dollars to Diamond Crystal, and 12.8 million to Live Oak Gardens, which is a mere hand slap to such a large company. In exchange, they got to wait patiently for the news cycle to churn on so that their little oops would be forgotten and they could continue to rape mother nature in other locations. Because humans suck.

The salt mine, oddly enough, was able to continue operating until 1986, creating yet another cavern. There are several oil drilling operations nearby. And now, guess what? That cavern is being used as a storage facility for pressurized natural gas.

What could possibly go wrong?

Rip Van Winkle Gardens
Lake Peigneur

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Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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