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Monday, November 20, 2006

The Lake Peigneur Disaster, November 21, 1980

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Today in 1980, Lake Peigneur began it’s transition from a shallow freshwater lake to what it is today: a body of saltwater more than 1,300 feet deep. The events of this day would become known as the Lake Peigneur Disaster because of the man-made calamity that caused this rapid ecological and topographical change.

Lake Peigneur, located near New Iberia, Louisiana, played host to two companies in 1980: Texaco, which owned an oil rig on the lake, and the Diamond Crystal Salt Company, which operated the Jefferson Island Salt Mine deep below the bed of the lake. The companies both profited from their work below the lake and no one imagined that their paths would ever cross. Even though most of the evidence as to what happened has been lost, it is generally accepted (even by the Texaco company) that the oil rig operators miscalculated their actual drilling location. The giant drill punctured the roof of the salt mine and from there it didn’t take long for the 55 miners working that November morning to figure out what was happening: Lake Peigneur was draining into the mine just as if someone had pulled a giant drain plug from the lake bed.

The salt in the mine absorbed the water as it poured in, causing the mine’s walls to lose structural rigidity and begin to collapse. All 55 miners miraculously escaped the crumbling caverns. On the surface, the men working on the oil rig almost immediately realized something was wrong; they, too, escaped without injury. A whirlpool formed above the spot where the lake was draining into the mine; it sucked in the drilling platform, eleven barges, trees and tons of earth that been dry land just a few hours before.

The interior volume of the mine was able to hold the entire water volume of the lake and then some. As the level of the lake dropped from its previous depth of 11 feet, the canal that sent water from the lake to the Gulf of Mexico began to reverse its flow. Saltwater from the Gulf was pulled up the canal and into the lake, forming a 150-foot tall waterfall that lasted for several days. Nine of the eleven sunken barges eventually popped to the surface. The drilling rig was never seen again.

Despite the magnitude of the disaster, no one was killed or injured. Nature sought equilibrium and when the waters were once again calm, Lake Peigneur had become a deep saltwater lake. The freshwater fish and plants that had called the lake home soon died off, replaced by their saltwater relatives. Texaco admitted fault in the disaster, despite a lack of concrete physical evidence. Put simply, nothing else made sense. Together with Wilson Brothers (who helped manage the rig), the company paid $32 million to Diamond Crystal and nearly $13 million to the nearby community of Live Oak Gardens in out-of-court settlements.

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