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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Why I Boycott Texaco

When I was 8 years old, my mother decided it would be a good idea to put me on a bus, all alone, to take a 15 hour trip to Rutland, Vermont to visit my 18 year old sister who was living in a teepee on a hippie commune. From an adult perspective, I cannot believe that any mother would make this choice. It had “very bad plan” written all over it. But my mother lived in a state of denial, which meant I never felt quite safe. (I rarely do, even to this day.)

I can’t remember how long I was there. A couple weeks, I think. It felt like an eternity. The general theme of this little jaunt seemed to be, “Barb, why can’t you just go with the flow?” Because, like, what 8 year old needs structure, right?

At some point my sister realized that just running back and forth on the path from the teepee to the outhouse wasn’t going to keep me entertained. And teaching me to pick mint (“See? The stems are square.”) wouldn’t distract me for long. So she decided we’d take a road trip.

The only problem was, she didn’t have a car. She enjoyed hitchhiking with me, because people would always stop to pick up a little kid. (Which is borderline creepy in and of itself.) But where she planned to take me would require legitimate transportation.

To be honest, I can’t remember where we were going. A zoo, or something. We never got there.

She borrowed a friend’s car. It was barely roadworthy. The upholstery was all cut up, and it backfired a lot. I was just happy to get out of the damned teepee. So off we went.

Part way to our destination, we stopped at a Texaco station to get gas. This was the early 70’s and there was no self-service. The gas station attendant, a clean cut, tense-jawed man, took one look at this hippie-mobile and was immediately hostile toward its scruffy occupants. (I can’t remember how we bathed. Needless to say, there was no shower in the teepee.)

I didn’t understand what was going on. We just wanted gas. We had money. This kind of thing never happened to mom. Why was he being mean? He also seemed to be very focused on our license plate.

A couple miles further down the road, we found out why. A cop pulled us over. Our license plates had expired. My sister had known this. She was just hoping nobody would notice.

In this more innocent time, my sister got out of the car to talk to the officer. Left alone while he took her license and registration, I got it into my head that he was going to take her to jail. What would happen to me? Where would I go? I didn’t even know how to contact my mother. I burst into tears.

That’s putting it mildly. Actually, I started wailing. My sister was going to jail, and I was going to be left on the street in some strange town to starve to death. I was going to DIE!

Finally the officer approached the vehicle and said, “What’s the matter, honey?”

I screamed, “You leave my sister ALONE!!!!”

In this day and age, I’d probably have gotten my little ass shot.

I was left alone in the car to wail until the tow truck came, at which time my snotty, red-faced self was bundled into the back of the cruiser with my sister. I cried during the entire drive to the station. I cried in the station.

My sister called another friend to come get us. He had his deaf 4 year old in tow. Kids have always freaked me out, even when I was one myself. But this kid, with his hippie parents who had allowed him to go rogue, was completely out of control.

I was trapped in the back seat with this Tasmanian devil for the entire ride home. I must say, he caused me to stop crying, because, not being able to hear himself, he was able to scream so loudly it could cause your ears to bleed. To this day, I’ve never heard another human produce such a prodigious sound.

And it didn’t help that I suffered from migraines, and all my crying and the lack of food all day had brought one on, big time. So I proceeded to throw up all over this guy’s back seat. (I could produce amazing amounts of vomit back then when the spirit moved me.)

That’s really all I can remember of the story, other than the fact that I heard my sister tell her friend that the Texaco guy had turned us in. I vowed from that moment on to never, ever buy my gas at a Texaco station.

And I never have. I’m a 52 year old woman. I’ve been driving for 36 years. That’s a lot of freakin’ gas. I will drive miles out of my way to avoid Texaco. On more than one occasion I’ve nearly run out of gas while searching for a non-Texaco station. Take that, Texaco!

It’s really kind of ironic since we can’t know for sure if that hippie-hating gas station attendant actually ever did drop a dime on us.

I also boycott Exxon, because of Exxon Valdez, and BP because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This makes fueling my car an increasing challenge. I look forward to the day when all vehicles are alternatively fueled. It’s not easy, voting with your conscience. It’s even harder to vote with your post traumatic stress.

Wild mint. I tried to find a picture that shows that the stems really are square, but I had no luck. You’re just going to have to trust me on this one.

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