Third-party experts studying stability of salt cavern operated by Westlake Chemical
Published 4:15 am Tuesday, October 3, 2023
Cynthia “Cindy” Robertson, founder and director of Micah 6:8 Mission, returned from her helicopter ride over a portion of the Westlake Corp plant in Sulphur feeling a little green around the gills. But it’s what is going on beneath the surface that has her concerned not only for her own health, but the health of the community.
On Sept. 20, the state made emergency declarations in response to the future stability of salt caverns operated by Westlake Corporation in Sulphur. The Louisiana Commissioner of Conservation said no imminent signs of collapse or major surface impact have manifested. The declaration makes it possible to expedite efforts to determine exactly what’s going on.
Unlike the Bayou Corne sinkhole disaster, Robertson is pleased to see the government’s response is proactive not reactive here, potentially due to lessons learned in 2012 after a hole the size of a tennis court turned into a 40-acre expanse of polluted water and the dissolution of a community.
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While Robertson was in the air, she saw acres of tanks, towers and flares, an oil sheen on one of the ponds, but “we didn’t get real close,” she added. “There was an area where the trees and grass were dead. It was black, so it looked like there was seepage occurring. We didn’t see any activity. Of course it was a Saturday.”
The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Office of Conservation declared and received evidence that ground deformation and subsidence imminently threatened a circular area within a radius of 3,200-feet which corresponds to the well head of Westlake US 2, LLC’s PPG 007B well and encompasses the Sulphur Mines Salt Dome, about one mile west-northwest of Sulphur.
After the emergency declaration, Robertson reached out to Dr. Wilma Subra, a New Iberia-based chemist about what could be happening beneath the surface. Subra has been providing technical assistance to residents across the United States and some foreign countries concerned with environmental and human health outcomes. She is a MacArthur Fellow, the recipient of a generous grant also known as the “genius grant.”
Subra told Robertson the pumping could cause a release of toxins that could contaminate the water supply. The pumping is helping keep the cavern pressurized.
The American Press contacted Westlake Corp for information about exactly what prompted the state to make emergency declarations, how the situation is being studied and whether the situation resembles what happened at Bayou Corne. Joe Andrepont, community and government affairs for Westlake Corp. and the corporate media office declined to answer, referring the American Press to its website, and the following information.
Westlake is monitoring the situation
“Westlake Corporation’s Lake Charles operations have been actively investigating, managing, and responding to the condition of one of the company’s salt caverns located in the Sulphur, Louisiana area.
Since January 2023, Westlake has been working diligently with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources to address the situation. Westlake immediately started engaging third party experts (e.g., seismologists, geophysicists, geo-mechanical engineers) to assist Westlake in understanding the situation and to provide us advice on how to best address it, including brine injection into the well, which has stabilized cavern pressure. We also have continued to work with the DNR on any developments, additional observations, and to mobilize additional resources and services to anticipate and respond to any circumstances that may arise.
Westlake is committed to working cooperatively with all government authorities and offices as well as neighboring well owner/operators to address the concerns raised in the declaration. We intend to keep all parties informed and we are well positioned to respond in the event an incident should occur.”
Industries such as Westlake Corp. use brine in making its products by injecting water into salt water caverns and pumping out the briney solution. Caverns were first drilled in 1957. It was last mined in 2007. The cavern appeared to remain pressure stable from February 2022 to October 2022, according to the Westlake Sulphur Dome web page. The first pressure loss was Dec. 28, 2021. A second pressure loss event was observed starting in October, at a lower decline rate than the previous event.
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If it is losing pressure, toxins are leaking out into the salt cavern and into the aquifer and other groundwater, Subra said.
The Sulphur Salt Mines were previously used as a Strategic Petroleum Reserve in the late 1970s. It was decommissioned in the 1980s because the crude could not be removed without endangering the salt dome and environment, according to Subra. Salt brine floats the oil to the surface. Industry continued to drill into the dome for the brine water needed to maintain their operations.
Robertson is no alarmist. She doesn’t claim to be a geology or health expert. She is persistent, and continues to advocate for water quality in Sulphur that exceeds the state’s requirements. The ordained minister was focused mainly on helping the homeless and the addicted through her nonprofit, when she realized how the hurricanes, evacuation and return to an area with a lack of transitional, low-income and affordable housing contributed to homelessness. Climate change means more frequent weather disasters. Pollution contributes to climate change. She would like to see industries be more transparent in its reporting of pollution that affects air and water quality.
For those who would like to know more about the salt caverns relation to water supply, plan to attend the Health & Environmental Summit hosted by Micah 6:8 Wednesday, Oct. 18, and Thursday, Oct. 20, at West Calcasieu Event Center at 401 Arena Road in Sulphur. The summit will feature two days of information, education, networking and “good food,” Robertson said. Six panels of speakers will present, including Subra. A toxic tour will be held Wednesday morning and a documentary of The Hollow Tree that evening. Lunch. Supper and child care are provided free of charge. Go to www.facebook.com/