The Worst-Case Scenario
Having taken an in-depth look at the tragic salt-cavern sinkhole in Bayou Corne as a scientist-host for the Travel Channel series, “America Declassified,” it is clear it me that the situation there is truly a perfect storm of physical and chemical hazards.
Now, in order to demonstrate this reality, allow me to turn conventional wisdom on its head.
The Nuclear Option
In today’s cultural climate, most perceive there to be no greater environmental hazard than high-level nuclear waste. However, if it had been nuclear waste bottled up thousands of feet beneath Bayou Corne, and not fossil fuels, I contend that no one would have ever had to evacuate at all.
In essence, radioactive waste could have saved Bayou Corne.
Controversial? Perhaps. But it all comes down to the simplest of physics principles: Buoyancy.
Hydrocarbons float. They’re lighter than water, hence the sheen observed on puddles, streams, lakes, and oceans after a spill. Conversely, the great majority of radioactive materials manifest as heavy metals. They do not float. In fact, they sink like anchors.
So, had even the most fearsome nuclear waste been stored in or near the doomed cavern, because the collapse took place thousands of feet beneath the surface, the disaster as it unfolded would have looked entirely different.
An Alternate-Reality View
In a parallel universe where there were no hydrocarbons near the salt dome, and instead the nation dumped several thousands of tons of nuclear waste in the cavern, let’s take a look at what would have happened:
First, there would have been no bubbling preceding the sinkhole opening up, as no fossil fuels would have been available to float to the surface. Then, there would be no “burping” of toxic hydrocarbons that according to many have contaminated the region’s shallow aquifer and water supply.
Next, the lack of the many chemical threats from methane and hydrogen sulfide, (i.e., being poisonous, corrosive, flammable and explosive), means that the primary driver for the community’s evacuation order would not have existed. (Note: Radioactive material is not explosive, corrosive, or flammable.)
Finally, this all means that while the residents remained, there would have been no need for vent wells, flare wells, or the crisscrossing networks of hoses and pipes to connect them across streets and through neighborhoods – eyesores and constant reminders of the current lurking chemical threat beneath Bayou Corne.
The disaster would have simply appeared as a new lake appearing nearby, one which has expanded away from the town as the disturbed earth beneath settled.
Without hydrocarbon contamination, this new lake would be safe to boat, fish, and swim in after the ground beneath finishes settling. It would have simply served as a somber reminder of the need to better understand the environment of our natural resources before harvesting them while marking the silent, entombed radioactive waste sitting nearly a mile below.
Quite a different scenario than that facing the residents of Bayou Corne today, and all the more reason to keep critical thinking alive when assessing our environment, the best ways to preserve it as a resource, and the possible effects of our activities on Planet Earth!
Semper Exploro – Always Explore.