The Lake Peigneur Giant Sinkhole Disaster 1980
The in-depth story of the Lake Peigneur Drilling Accident: When The Earth Swallowed a Lake.
November 20, 1980, is a new day at Lake Peigneur in Louisiana. Some 9 miles north of the Vermilion Bay in the Gulf of Mexico, a charming, calm lake is a popular resort for fishermen and nature lovers..
November 20, 1980, is a new day at Lake Peigneur in Louisiana.
Some 9 miles north of the Vermilion Bay in the Gulf of Mexico,
a charming, calm lake is a popular resort for fishermen and nature lovers. The beauty
of the lake is rounded off with a gorgeous botanical park on the lake’s Jefferson Island.
However, not everyone present at the lake is interested in its natural beauty. An oil drilling
platform in ownership of the Wilson Brothers Corporation was recently brought to the lake.
Hired by the famous Texaco oil company, Wilson Brothers were looking for oil.
Beneath the lake lies a gigantic salt dome, meaning there is probably oil somewhere near.
Indeed, the calculations have shown a substantial deposit of oil on the edges of the salt dome. The
Wilson Brothers were supposed to drill down to it. Their employees were experienced. They had done
the job many times before and knew all the trade secrets. So, once the engineers gave
them coordinates, they threw themselves into the job. Drilling for oil is a challenging
and dangerous job that can cause unpredictable consequences, including severe accidents.
And today, the workers are about to experience such a situation. Early in the morning,
at around 6 A.M., the 14-inch (36 cm) drill gets stuck at a depth of about 1,230 feet. Nothing too
unusual for the workers on the platform. They just need to get the drill loose and continue working.
However, it seems that the drill won’t come out no matter what they try. Suddenly, the drill tilts
forcefully, followed by a couple of loud pops. It is undoubtedly a situation that calls for an
immediate evacuation of workers. In a hurry, they cut free the barges holding the platform
and flee to the safe part of the lake. They were right to evacuate as the platform
overturns and begins to sink. A couple of minutes later, the entire platform disappears into the
lake, to the surprise of the workers and everyone around. The oil drilling platform is a massive
construction, and the lake is just ten feet deep. There is no way it can swallow the entire thing.
Still disoriented and shocked by what they’ve seen, workers notice their
boat is being pulled back to the platform’s location. Not quite sure what is going on,
the skipper pushes the throttle and takes the boat and the workers to the safety of the lakeshore.
The sunken platform turns out to be just an introduction to an event of cataclysmic
proportions. Giant whirlpool forms at the spot where the platform used to be
sucking in nearby barges and boats, soil from Jefferson Island, trucks, trees, buildings,
and even a parking lot near the botanical garden are sucked into a giant vortex.
The Delcambre Canal that takes the water from Lake Peigneur to the Gulf of Mexico reverses its
flow under the influence of the whirlpool. People around the lake are stunned by what they witness.
To many of them, it seems like the bowels of the earth opened, and the end of the world is coming.
The exaggerated impression the people got that day as they watched the entire lake disappear in
front of their eyes was not far from reality. The ground did open, and all the water from the lake
went into it. What they didn’t know was that under their feet, another drama was going on.
Below the lake lies a colossal salt dome, a vertical mass of salt that intrudes into
upper layers of earth from underlying salt beds due to the weight of the overlying rock.
In the United States, salt domes are frequent, especially along the Gulf of Mexico coastline,
most of them in Texas and Louisiana. All of them are exploited for salt mining.
Inside the salt dome beneath Lake Peigneur was a four-level salt mine reaching depths of 1,500
feet. Under the ownership of the Diamond Crystal Salt Company, the mine was opened in 1919 and was
extracting halite minerals, better known as rock salt, for six decades incessantly. The initial
mining was conducted on the topmost level at a depth of 800 feet. Over time, the primary salt
production moved deeper, with three new levels opened at depths of 1,000, 1,300, and 1,500 feet.
Each level consisted of large tunnels up to 100 feet high and wide. The tunnel on the bottommost
level was 100 feet wide and 80 feet tall. Each of these tunnels was created through the process of
mining. Inside them, vast pillars of salt were left untouched to support the tunnel ceiling.
Like oil drilling, mining has its own risks. A record of mining-related accidents
is rather long and includes a whole palette of dangers, from ceiling collapses to outbursts of
explosive gasses trapped in underground pockets. In salt mines, miners pay special attention
to the stability of their tunnels because the entire structure lies on pillars made
of the same material they are digging out. The presence of the water is especially hazardous,
which could easily dissolve the salt pillars and leave the tunnel ceiling without support.
The Jefferson Island mine at Lake Peigneur had a couple of water leak incidents in the mid-1970s,
but none threatened its stability. The bigger problem was the instability of the entire mine
above the 1,300 feet level. Due to the change in the dimensions of narrow pillars on the upper
floor due to prolonged stress, the surface in tunnels was subsiding 10 inches per year.
On November 20, 1980, the day of the accident, 55 miners descended to the bottom two levels
at 1,300 feet and 1,500 feet below ground. The shift began as usual. Using the electric shovel,
they mined the rock salt, then transported it to the surface in small mining carts.
However, the job was disrupted by an unusual sound coming from down the tunnel. Electrician Junius
Gaddison went to check. To his amazement, the strange sound was coming from fuel drums banging
against each other as they were carried down the tunnel by a knee-deep stream of muddy water.
He knew about a history of water leakage in the mine, but a torrent of water was a clear signal
that something was wrong. Not wasting time, Gaddison called for an alarm. Three
short flashes of mine lights signaled everyone inside to leave the mine as quickly as possible.
The problem was that the elevator to the surface was slow and was designed to carry only eight
people. Moreover, many miners working on the bottommost fourth level had their passage blocked
by the water. They had to go a long way toward it using minecarts. Despite the fact the elevator
took a long time to reach the surface, the miners kept their composure. They calmly waited for their
turn to get to the safety of the surface. During that time, Maintenance Foreman Randy LaSalle
searched the mine tunnels for workers who might have missed the signal to evacuate as quickly as
possible. In a race against time and water, miraculously, all 55 miners reached safety.
The key to successful evacuation was that all the employees were well trained for such situations.
Once on the surface, the miners were shocked by what they saw. The lake, and everything on it,
was disappearing into a whirlpool. It suddenly became clear what had happened.
The oil drill got stuck because it penetrated the mine ceiling at the 1,300 feet level.
Doing so created a funnel that allowed the water from Lake Peigneur to leak into the mine.
The water dissolved the rock salt around the drill as it flowed down, creating a
larger and larger funnel. Once mass amounts of water reached the mine, they began dissolving
the salt pillars and caused the entire mine construction and everything above it to collapse.
In just three hours, the giant hole in the ground took all 3,5 billion gallons of water (more than
13 billion liters) from the lake into the mine. On top of that, the force of the whirlpool was so
strong that it drew the water from the Delcambre Canal,
dragging along eleven barges from it. A crew on an anchored tugboat struggled to hold their vessel
against the current but eventually abandoned it before a swirling vortex swallowed it.
It was a horrifying image. Where once a lake was, there was now a gigantic hole. The cataclysmic
image was complemented by a 400 feet tall geyser spraying water and debris into the air.
Because the water was flowing into the mine faster than the air could get out, the air was compressed
and burst out through the mine’s air shaft. The water coming from the Gulf of Mexico began
to fill the hole through the Delcambre Canal, creating a temporary 150 feet tall waterfall,
the largest in Louisiana. For the first and only time in history, water in the
Delcambre Canal flowed northwards. It took 40 hours to refill the lake,
and once it was filled and the water pressure equalized, nine sunken barges popped out to the
surface. Unfortunately, the rest of the barges, a drilling platform, a tugboat, trucks, and other
things remained trapped in the ruins of the mine. Luckily, no lives were lost in this unusual
accident. There was only severe material damage. The lake suffered a significant change,
though, as it was now filled with brackish water instead of freshwater.
It was no longer 10 feet deep. Now it has become the deepest lake in Louisiana, at 200 feet.
It was a drastic change in the lake’s biology. In years to follow, many new species of fish
and plants appeared in the lake. It was a whole new ecosystem that had to be adapted to.
However, a question remained: how was it possible that the people in charge
of drilling were not aware they were drilling directly above the salt mine?
The official report on the disaster, released by the Mine Safety and Health
Administration of the United States Department of Labor in August 1981, failed to explain it.
All of the documents regarding the drilling sunk along with the drilling platform.
Even though there is a chance that the drill may have deflected toward the mine,
it’s most probable that the engineers in charge of the drilling made a miscalculation
and placed the drill right above the mine. For the same reason of the lack of original
documents, one can only guess who was responsible for the miscalculation.
There is a possibility that Texaco engineers made the wrong trigonometrical calculation. Still,
there is also a chance that the mine management provided them with fault maps of the mine tunnels.
Either way, in out-of-court settlements with the Diamond Crystal Salt Company
and the Live Oak Gardens, Texaco and the Wilson Brothers Corporation agreed
to compensate those affected by the damage. The mine owners were paid 32 million dollars
in compensation for the mine lost, while the botanical garden was paid 12.8 million dollars.
As a result of the disaster, the Jefferson Island mine was officially closed in December 1986.
The settlement ended one of the most bizarre disasters in human history.
The story of the Lake Peigneur drilling accident is an astonishing record
of how a small human error can produce a colossal and irreversible natural disaster.
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