Get off your butt and report

Members of the Society of Environmental Journalists, wearing floatation vests for safety, interview a Texas Brine representative at the site of the sinkhole. Image: Eric Freeman

Members of the Society of Environmental Journalists, wearing floatation vests for safety, interview a Texas Brine representative at the site of the sinkhole. Image: Eric Freedman

By Eric Freedman

The easy thing for you as a journalist is to phone a few experts and bureaucrats, do some Internet research for background and write a news story or feature about the mega-sinkhole sinkhole near the tiny southern Louisiana community of Bayou Corne.

Or you as a journalist could get off your butt, step away from the computer screen, tuck your cellphone into your pocket and see it up close and personal.

The story – many stories, actually – are still there two years after an August 2012 salt mining operation breached an eons-old salt dome, collapsing a cypress swamp, venting untold amounts of natural gas and changing Bayou Corne forever.

Mother Jones magazine described the situation this way: “Texas Brine’s operation sits atop a three-mile-wide, mile-plus-deep salt deposit known as the Napoleonville Dome, which is sheathed by a layer of oil and natural gas, a common feature of the salt domes prevalent in Gulf Coast states. The company specializes in a process known as injection mining, and it had sunk a series of wells deep into the salt dome, flushing them out with high-pressure streams of freshwater and pumping the resulting saltwater to the surface. From there, the brine is piped and trucked to refineries along the Mississippi River and broken down into sodium hydroxide and chlorine for use in manufacturing everything from paper to medical supplies. What happened in Bayou Corne, as near as anyone can tell, is that one of the salt caverns Texas Brine hollowed out — a mine dubbed Oxy3 — collapsed.”

Two years after the disaster, you could tell the Bayou Corne sinkhole story without leaving your laptop.

Or you could head for the field.

Looking across the 37-acre lake formed by the sinkhole. Image: Eric Freedman

Looking across the 37-acre lake formed by the sinkhole. Image: Eric Freedman

You could see what now looks like a deceptively calm 37-acre lake, with only occasional gas bubbles popping to the surface.

And see the drowning, dying trees along its edges.

And see the dragonflies flitting over the water.

And see the schools of fingernail-sized minnows.

And see abandoned lengths of a now-relocated natural gas pipeline that had run under the site.

On an 89–degree afternoon, you could feel the sun beating down could walk atop the post-disaster earthen berms built to control possible gas and chemical leakage, with your sweaty shirt sticking to your back.

You could hear the crickets.

You could drive down the neatly right-angled streets of Bayou Corne – streets with names like Sauce Picayune, Jambalaya and Gumbo – past what are mostly modest one-story houses, mobile homes and fishing camps. Past lawns that are still mowed regularly although nobody lives in most of those homes any more.

You could listen to some of the handful of Bayou Corne residents who’ve ignored the state’s mandatory evacuation order and insist on staying in their homes, at least until resolution of the legal battle against Texas Brine, the company responsible.

You could listen to their own stories and hear them share the stories of their former neighbors, evacuees like the family that’d lived in Bayou Corne there for 30 years, evacuees like the artist who’d moved in only weeks before the disaster.

The edge of the sinkhole near one of the protective earthen berms. Image: Eric Freedman

The edge of the sinkhole near one of the protective earthen berms. Image: Eric Freedman

You could listen to Assumption Parish and state agency officials, experts and community group activists who’d responded to and investigated the disaster but who still don’t know its exact cause. These are among the people responsible for ensuring that it won’t happen at other salt-mining operations in southern Louisiana. And who worry that it might indeed happen again.

You could listen to Texas Brine representatives describe the company’s immediate and long-term response activities and the $80 million – so far – tab.

As a journalist, you could take notes the old-fashioned way – with pen and notebook – in the field, you could interview and record people face to face, you could take photos and video with a camera or smartphone. You could survey the scene up close and personal, observing, watching.

That’s what a group of journalists attending the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in New Orleans recently did. That’s how they could get their own stories and how I got this Knight Center blog post.

To follow their example, you have to get off your butt, step away from the computer screen, stuff your cellphone into your pocket and head for real news scenes and real people to find real stories.

Eric Freedman is director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism