40th anniversary of salt mine breach creating Louisiana’s deepest lake

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LAKE PEIGNEUR, La. (KLFY) — 40 years ago, a catastrophe like no other occurred in Acadiana. The largest manmade whirlpool and tallest waterfall in the state were created when an oil drill and salt dome collided.

Lake Peigneur on Jefferson Island used to only be a 10-foot-deep freshwater pond, but after a 40-hour catastrophe, it turned into a 1300 feet saltwater pond. A solitary chimney is the only proof of what used to be there.

Michael Richard’s memories are more vivid than his home video. In his eyewitness account, he said, “I don’t know if this has ever happened before, but it resulted in the largest manmade or man carved sinkhole in the world .”

On November 20, 1980, a normal day on the Lake Peigneur was abruptly interrupted by the tremors of a 14-inch Texaco drill bit which made a catastrophic error due to a misread map that misplaced the exploratory drilling operation.

Instead of striking black oil, they hit white salt. The sound of the ceiling being pierced resounded throughout an actively mined salt dome, and an electrician investigated.

Richard spoke to that electrician and said, “Now imagine this is in a cave. It’s dark. He shined his light on it, and he saw oil drums. Empty oil drums floating on water bumping into each other.”

More than 50 miners were at work 200 feet under the penetration site. An alarm was immediately sounded, ad eight at a time everyone evacuated with the help of a 1300ft. elevator ride to the surface.

Meanwhile, the massive oil rig began to shake violently and was swallowed up in the 10-foot-deep lake, and barges began to spiral in a whirlpool as fisherman rushed to the edge of the water to escape the suction.

It was like the plug was pulled from a bathtub, but gravity didn’t just swallow water. Trees and 65 acres of land followed into the now 1500-foot-deep hole.

“It was very real, but it wasn’t really upsetting,” Richard remembered. “It was just being on the spot at the time and accepting what you’re seeing. There’s nothing you can do about it. You just might as well take it in.”

After only three hours, 3.5 billion gallons were gone, and the Delcambre Canal began flowing backward, creating Louisiana’s tallest waterfall of 150 feet, and for the next 40 hours the once freshwater Lake was refilled by the Gulf of Mexico.

Trapped air geisered upped hundreds of feet high, some of the swallowed barges floated back up to the surface, but the oil rigs, buildings, salt-filled barges, and other equipment are still at the bottom of a ruined salt mine.

The experience gave Richard nightmares for years. “I dreamed that my wife and my two children were trapped in the house that sank in the lake, and I couldn’t get to them. It happened over and over again. It was like a rerun,” Richard stated. “It was a bit traumatic, and now I’m over it, and it’s taken 40 years.”

Many salt domes are still in Acadiana are still in production. Richard said if it were not for the incident, the salt dome would have lasted centuries to come.

Despite the devastation caused by the whirlpool, no one died and no serious injuries were attributed to it. Texaco paid tens of millions to the salt mine company and landowners due to its miscalculation.

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