BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Texas Brine Co. said Friday that it has started extending settlement offers to Assumption Parish residents who have been under an evacuation order since August because of a 15-acre sinkhole.
The company operated a collapsed salt dome that authorities say caused the sinkhole.
Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said 23 settlement offers were ready and officials were contacting those residents Friday afternoon and Saturday.
"We are scheduling appointments," Cranch said. "They will come to our office, at the facilities we've maintained at the command center, and we will give them the offer."
Cranch said residents could make counter-offers and if needed, Texas Brine would pay the cost for a third-party mediator. However, the mediation would be non-binding, he said.
The sinkhole, discovered in August, is in the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou area of Assumption Parish, about 40 miles south of Baton Rouge. It has resulted in an ongoing evacuation order for about 150 homes in the area.
The news of settlement offers comes just days after Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order telling state officials to review all of Texas Brine's permits in Louisiana with the possibility of revocation, because of the company's slow response on buyouts.
Company officials blamed the delay on their insurance carriers.
Cranch didn't answer directly when asked whether Jindal's executive order on Monday played a role in Friday's settlement announcement, instead praising Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon for calling Texas Brine's insurance carriers.
Jindal remained cautious Friday about the company's announcement.
"Texas Brine's long overdue decision to finally offer buyouts is welcome news. However, the proof will be in the results. We will continue to hold Texas Brine accountable to make sure they clean up their mess and to ensure they make this situation right for homeowners," the governor said in a statement.
The offers come nine months after the sinkhole was discovered in a swampy area of Assumption Parish. Residents have not been given the all-clear to return home because of continued safety concerns.
The cavern failure released oil and natural gas, which authorities are continuing to monitor. A concentration of explosive gas was found under two houses and a shed in April.
A salt dome is a large, naturally occurring underground salt deposit. Companies drill on the dome's outskirts to create caverns to extract brine used in the petrochemical refining process, or for storage of such things as hydrocarbons, which the age-harden salt prevents from seeping into the ground.
Texas Brine's vice president of operations, Bruce Martin, empathized with residents in a written statement.
"We understand the frustration of the community and appreciate their patience as we worked through the unexpected delays in this process," Martin said. "While not every resident has chosen to participate in the settlement process, Texas Brine is committed to offering fair and reasonable settlement offers to those who may wish to move."
Martin said the settlement offers will start with residents who have completed the inspection and appraisal process.
Cranch said 102 property owners submitted completed forms and all of those properties have been inspected. However, he said several properties still must be appraised.