The Friday Report: Lake Whoa! Be Gone |

The Friday Report: Lake Whoa! Be Gone

Jon de Vos/The Friday Report
Grand County, CO Colorado

With a title like that you were expecting Garrison Keillor. I’ll try not to disappoint you in a true story about drilling for oil along Louisiana’s gulf coast that has nothing to do with British Petroleum. Nope, this story stars Texaco Oil and starts about 180 years ago:

By the age of 4, stage and silent screen star Joseph Jefferson was already an accomplished actor. Born in 1829, he was famous and wealthy by the time he was 40, renowned for his 4,500 performances of Rip Van Winkle, a stage production he loosely adapted from Washington Irving.

He purchased a 3,600 acre estate on Orange Island, Louisiana, around 1870 and built himself a beautiful mansion on a hill overlooking Lake Peigneur, surrounded by hundreds of acres of lush tropical gardens.

When Louisiana’s entire orange crop froze and most of the trees died in 1899, the name of the estate was changed to Jefferson Island.

At 70 feet above sea level, Jefferson’s home sat on one of the highest points around. He died in 1905, and in 1917, heirs sold the estate to J. Lyle Bayless, wealthy friend of E. A. McIlhenny who owned nearby Avery Island, home to America’s famous Tabasco sauce. Avery Island also boasts the magnificent and exotic Jungle Gardens.

Not true islands at all, Jefferson and Avery are two of five inland salt domes in southern Louisiana, primordial fingers of salt thrusting up to the Earth’s surface. Bayless began to mine the very pure salt that lay less than twenty feet below his tropical and fertile land. In 1956, heirs sold the mine to Diamond Crystal Company who expanded the operations. By 1980, more than 40 million tons of salt had been excavated out of the earth, leaving enormous caverns 1,300 feet below the beautiful gardens alongside Lake Peigneur.

Actually the caverns extended far under Lake Peigneur – a 1,250 acre body of water with a maximum depth of about 8 feet. Grand Lake by comparison, while much deeper, covers only 600 acres. The Delcambre Canal connects Lake Peigneur to the Gulf of Mexico, twelve miles to the south. Oil barges flow along this canal on their way to and from the Gulf. Life was good at this manicured and privileged estate.

Good, that was, until Thursday morning, Nov. 20, 1980, when Texaco Oil drilled a test well through the lake and into the salt mine 1,300 feet below. Later, Texaco officials said they knew there were salt mines in the area, they just never imagined they would be under the lake.

At 1,228 feet, the drill jammed. The dozen men on the drilling platform watched in terror as the lake began to swirl and the derrick took an ominous tilt. No coincidence whatever, 1,300 feet directly below them, fifty salt miners began running for safety when water started showering down on them. In a cosmic clap of universal understanding, the drillers swam to shore, while the miners caught the next elevator heading up. And what a sight they beheld when they looked back at the lake.

Like taking the stopper out of a big sink, a whirlpool quickly grew to 200 feet in diameter sucking down not only the $ 5 million Texaco drilling platform but also a second one nearby, a tugboat, 11 oil barges that were dragged backwards out of the Delcambre Canal, several docks, greenhouses, a 70-acre garden, house trailers, trucks, tractors, three dogs, a mule and a parking lot. But, not one single person perished in the whole doggone ordeal.

I threw that “doggone” in gratuitously as a tribute to Garrison.

After two days, the lake was completely drained, the lakeshore devastated and forever changed. As disbelieving observers watched in amazement, a 200-foot geyser spewed from the hole, spitting back debris that had just been swallowed. Within a few days, the swirling waters calmed, and the lake filled again. Eventually, nine of the sunken barges bobbed back to the surface. Without admitting guilt, Texaco settled claims of about $50 million, leaving only one question unanswered:

Would you really trust your car to the men who sank a lake?

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