Photo of the Day

This image depicts the huge waterfall that formed when an oil drilling rig in Lake Peigneur punctured the ceiling of an underlying salt mine. The backwards flow of the normally outflowing Delcambre Canal temporarily created the biggest waterfall in Louisiana.

Pulling the Plug on Louisiana’s Lake Peigneur

A 1980 drilling accident caused one of the worst industrial accidents in Louisiana’s history

In 1980, Lake Peigneur was an unremarkable body of water located near the Gulf of Mexico and New Iberia, Louisiana.  The freshwater lake covered 1,300 acres of land and was only eleven feet deep. A small piece of land, the Jefferson Island, was home to a beautiful botanical park. Deep beneath the lake there was a salt mine.

Today Lake Peigneur is still an unremarkable body of water. But it is now a 1,300 foot deep saltwater lake.

On the morning of November 21, 1980, a Texaco oil rig team on Louisiana’s Lake Peigneur noticed that their drill had seized up below the surface of the shallow lake. The twelve men were baffled when they couldn’t free the drill.

Diamond Crystal Salt Company was busy mining away in the salt dome beneath Lake Peigneur as they had been doing for years. On the lake, a Texaco drilling rig was looking for some oil. The engineers operating the rig made a miscalculation which resulted in a 14″ drill bit ramming through the roof of the salt mine. Lake Peigneur drained into the salt mine. The whole lake.In the process, a whirlpool formed and sucked the drill bit and eleven barges down into the cavern.

Then, following a series of loud pops, their platform begins to tilt toward the water. Alarmed, the men scrambled to the shore.  Geysers shot up from the depths. They had no idea that they had just redrawn the landscape of Iberia Parish. They had managed to permanently transform an 11-foot-deep freshwater lake into a 200-foot-deep saltwater one.

It was the kind accident that happens, for example, when you text and drive.

In, in the process of generating revenue for (of all things) an environmental cleanup fund, a Texaco oil rig accidentally punctured the top of a salt mine situated beneath the lake. The water above emptied into the mine, creating a whirlpool that sucked 11 barges into the caverns below, turned the lake from freshwater to saline, and caused the Delcambre Canal to flow backwards. Three days later, nine of the eleven barges “popped up like iron corks, the other two were never found.

Lake Peigneur is located in Louisiana near the Gulf of Mexico. Before 1980, it was an approximately 11-foot deep fresh water lake with an island in the middle. Next to it, and partially under it, Diamond Crystal Salt Company maintained a salt mine, with salt being mined near the lake since 1919.

Around large underground salt domes, you can often find oil.  As explained by one Dr. Whitney J. Autin, “…salt moves upwards and it pierces through surrounding strata… and this piercing produces faults and folds within the surrounding sediments producing an ideal mechanism to trap oil.”

Texaco had drilled down to look for oil beneath Lake Peigneur. A little too far down. The mistake drained the entire lake like a bathtub, creating an enormous whirlpool that consumed barges, drills, and 65 acres of land. Oops.

The error lay in the fact that the Diamond Crystal Salt Company was simultaneously operating beneath the lake, essentially creating a giant bubble for Texaco to pop.

As the drilling proceeded, Texaco workers found their gear stuck. The drill would go no further. Then, suddenly, it went further. A lot further. The entire 150-foot tall contraption sunk beneath the water’s surface—the surface of a lake that was only 11 feet deep. But their drill was just the start.

As the hole into the mine widened, the vortex accelerated and created massive landslides, pulling anything and everything into its maw. Eleven barges, a tugboat, enormous swaths of forest—everything in or around the water was sucked down. The whirlpool’s power was so great that it reversed the flow of an entire canal that normally flowed outward from Peigneur.

Virlie Langlinais was at her Louisiana home on Lake Peigneur when she saw the swirling vortex. “It was like watching a science fiction movie with tug boats and rigs and everything going on,” she recalls from the comfort of her friend’s porch some three decades later, a faint breeze licking off the water below. “Like watching a little ducky in a bathtub going down the drain.”

At the time, Lake Peigneur was an unremarkable body of water near New Iberia, Louisiana. Though the freshwater lake covered 1,300 acres of land, it was only eleven feet deep. A small island there was home to a beautiful botanical park, oil wells dotted the landscape, and far beneath the lake were miles of tunnels for the Diamond Crystal salt mine.

Bayous such as Bayou Corne were largely settled by the Acadians in the late 1700s, who were attracted to the locations for its economic potential as an alligator and crawfish nesting site. Beneath much of the state of Louisiana, including these bayous, are salt domes, gigantic deposits left during the formation of the North American continent. These domes vary wildly in scale and depth, some as much as 35,000 feet below the surface and as large as Mount Everest. With such depths and dimensions, these domes are naturally under thousands of pounds per square inch of pressure.

The economic value of salt domes has been exploited for centuries. Salt mining has been going on in Louisiana since the Antebellum period, and in the 20th century, the government began using these underground salt caverns as storage reservoirs for crude oil. Where there is a juncture of mining, petroleum engineering, and drilling, care must be taken to maintain stability, so as to prevent a disaster as happened at Lake Peigneur.

Lake Peigneur sinkhole disaster

Early in the morning on November 21, 1980, a dozen Texaco-hired workers abandoned their oil-drilling rig hastily in the middle of a lake. They had been probing the floor of Lake Peigneur in Louisiana when their drill suddenly seized up at about 1,230 feet below the murky surface. When they attempted to work the big drill loose, normally a fairly easy task at such shallow depths. The men heard a series of loud pops, and the rig tilted precariously toward the water.

In those days, Lake Peigneur was an unremarkable body of water near New Iberia, Louisiana. Though the freshwater lake covered 1,300 acres of land, it was only 11 feet deep. Its small Jefferson Island boasted a beautiful botanical park, and a few oil wells dotted the landscape. The area was also home to the Diamond Crystal salt mine, with miles of tunnels honeycombing the natural salt dome beneath the lake.

When the $5-million drill rig began to buck and protest, the crew concluded that something had gone terribly wrong. They released the attached barges, scrambled off the rig, and moved to the shore about 300 yards away. Shortly after, the team watched in disbelief as the huge platform and derrick rolled over slowly and disappeared into a lake that was supposed to be shallow. Within moments the surrounding water began to rotate around the spot where the derrick had disappeared. The movement was almost imperceptible at first, but accelerated gradually into a fast-moving whirlpool with its center directly over the drill site. As the men looked on, dumbfounded, the whirlpool grew to a quarter of a mile in diameter.

Down in the Diamond Crystal salt mine, an electrician named Junius Gaddison heard a series of loud clanging sounds from a nearby corridor. When he investigated, he discovered a knee-deep rush of muddy water dragging fuel drums down the mine shaft. He called in the alarm and headed for the nearest exit.

Barges being sucked into the vortex.

In the depths of the mine, the morning shift was interrupted when all the lights flashed three times, the signal to drop everything and evacuate immediately. The 50 or so miners, most of them working more than 1,500 feet underground, were quick to comply, hurrying to the higher levels to reach the elevators. When they got to the third level, however, the route to the lifts was blocked by the rising waters.

From the surface, the cause of the unfolding disaster was unmistakable. Although the drillers had been aware of the Diamond Crystal salt mine, due to some miscalculation they had bored straight into one of the cavernous 80-foot-high, 50-foot-wide upper shafts. As the lake drained into the mine through the 14-inch-wide borehole, the water dissolved the salt rapidly, widening the hole by the second. The water also began to eat away at the huge salt pillars that supported the mine’s high ceilings. As the bases of the columns dissolved, many of them buckled. The upper shafts of the mine began to collapse.

As most of the miners rushed for the exit, a maintenance foreman named Randy LaSalle drove around to the remote areas of the mine that hadn’t seen the evacuation signal and warned the miners there to evacuate. On level three, where high waters had blocked the escape route, the desperate miners used mine carts and diesel-powered vehicles to push their way through the water. Once the 50 miners reached the 1,300 foot level, eight men crammed into the elevator and began the excruciatingly slow journey to the surface. The lift car then crawled back down the shaft to pick up another load of workers as the mine below filled slowly with water.

The men watched their $5 million, 150-foot-high derrick somehow vanish into a lake that had an average depth of less than three feet. It seems their drill had accidentally penetrated a main shaft of the Diamond Crystal salt mine, whose tunnels crisscrossed the rock under the lake. Lake water was now rushing into the mine through the rapidly expanding 14-inch hole in the salt dome, with a force ten times that of a fire hydrant.

The whirlpool’s tremendous sucking power was causing violent destruction. Another drilling platform on the lake was swallowed whole and a loading dock was ripped to pieces. Seventy acres of Jefferson Island was slurped into the vortex, including trees, structures, and a parking lot. The suction was so strong that it reversed the flow of a 12-mile-long canal that led out to he Gulf of Mexico, dragging 11 barges from the canal into the lake and down into the flooded mines. A tugboat on the canal fought against the current at full power, but its puny engines were no match for the maelstrom. After a prolonged struggle, the sailors brought their boat along the canal bank and made a jump for it, then watched as the whirlpool consumed their vessel.

After three hours, the lake was drained of its 3.5 billion gallons of water. The canal continued to draw salt water in from the Gulf of Mexico, forming a 150-foot waterfall into the muddy crater where the shallow lake had been. As the lake bed filled with ocean water, large pockets of trapped air escaped from the mine through the original drain hole, causing tremendous 400-foot geysers. Over the next couple of days, as the lake level reached the original waterline, nine of the sunken barges propped back to the surface like corks. The drilling rigs and tugboat were never seen again; forever entombed in the ruined salt mine.

Amazingly, the miners all escaped, but the drama was just beginning for Lake Peigneur. The oilmen watched in shock as the water began to circle around its new “drain,” making the lake into a swirling vortex of mud, trees, and barges, the largest man-made whirlpool in history. A tugboat, a dock, another drilling platform, a parking lot, and a big chunk of nearby Jefferson Island got sucked into the abyss.

Lake Peigneur used to drain into Vermilion Bay via the Delcambre Canal, but once the lake had emptied into the mine, the canal changed direction and salt water from the Gulf of Mexico flooded into the muddy lake bed. (To this day, Lake Peigneur has a brackish ecosystem very different from the way it was in 1980.) The backwards flow created a temporary 164-foot waterfall, the tallest in the state, and 400-foot geysers burst periodically from the depths as compressed air was forced out of the flooded mine shafts.

The ruins of a building stand in the water of Lake Peigneur on Jefferson Island (Photo by Philip Gloud)

It is difficult to determine exactly what occurred, as all of the evidence was destroyed or washed away in the ensuing maelstrom. The now generally accepted explanation is that a miscalculation by Texaco regarding their location resulted in the drill puncturing the roof of the third level of the mine. This created an opening in the bottom of the lake, similar to removing the drain plug from a bathtub. The lake then drained into the hole, expanding the size of that hole as the soil and salt were washed into the mine by the rushing water, filling the enormous caverns left by the removal of salt over the years. The resultant whirlpool sucked in the drilling platform, eleven barges, many trees and 65 acres of the surrounding terrain.

A local fisherman was able to drive his small boat to the shore and tie it up to a tree, and get out, to later watch it and the tree get sucked down. So much water drained into those caverns that the flow of the Delcambre Canal that usually empties the lake into Vermilion Bay was reversed, making the canal a temporary inlet. This backflow created, for a few days, the tallest waterfall ever in the state of Louisiana, at 164 feet (50 m), as the lake refilled with salt water from the Delcambre Canal and Vermilion Bay. The water down flowing into the mine caverns displaced air which erupted as compressed air and then later as 400 foot geysers up through the mineshafts.

All 55 employees in the mine at the time of the accident were able to escape thanks to well-planned and rehearsed evacuation drills, or through heroic efforts by co-workers. The staff of the drilling rig fled the platform before it was sucked down into the new depths of the lake. Three dogs were reported killed, however. Days after the disaster, once the water pressure equalized, nine of the eleven sunken barges popped out of the whirlpool and refloated on the lake’s surface.

The end result was a vastly different Lake Peigneur. Now a saltwater lake thanks to the influx of ocean water, the lake was also far deeper since it now extended all the way into the former mine. New saltwater-tolerant flora and fauna replaces the old plants and fish. The remaining salt dome is used as a storehouse for pressurised natural gas despite local opposition.

The disaster caused drilling in Lake Peigneur to cease—at least for a time. The lake showed signs of recovering from its industrial past after that, although it was several hundred feet deeper and stocked with a new species of fish that could live in the saltwater ecosystem. But industry slowly began to creep back.

Houses were submerged after an oil derrick drilled a hole into salt mines, deepening the lake. Photo: Alamy

How could such an accident happen? Apparently through miscommunication. Texaco was aware of salt mines in the area and had contacted the Corps of Engineers, which in turn contacted Diamond Crystal. Where the communication broke down is unclear. Texaco, Diamond Crystal, and a contractor operating the rig sued each other. In an out-of-court settlement, Texaco and the rig operator paid Diamond Crystal an estimated $45 million. Texaco paid Live Oak Gardens on Jefferson Island another $12.8 million for damages. The mine was closed, and Diamond Crystal soon got out of the salt business.

Despite the enormous destruction caused by the vortex, no human life was lost in this disaster, nor were there any serious injuries. Within two days, what had previously been an eleven-foot-deep freshwater body was replaced with a 1,300-foot-deep saltwater lake. The lake’s biology was changed drastically, and it became home to many species of plants and fish which had not been there previously.

Why were they digging for oil directly above an active salt mine? you might ask. Didn’t they know? They did! The Texaco platform was drilling in the wrong place because of a mapping mistake: an engineer mistook transverse Mercator projection coordinates for UTM coordinates. This is why geography matters!

  • Another bizarre lake disaster of the 1980s occurred on August 21, 1986 when Lake Nyos in Cameroon suddenly emitted approximately 100,000 – 300,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide which asphyxiated 1,700 people and 3,500 animals in nearby towns.  How did this happen? A vein of magma lies beneath Lake Nyos. Carbon dioxide leaks from the lava into the water resulting in the lower, cooler levels of the lake water ultimately becoming supersaturated. The lake normally remains stable this way, but a tipping point was reached on August 21, 1986 and the CO2 erupted from the lake, in something called a limnic eruption.  To prevent a recurrence, tubes have been installed that siphon water from the bottom layers of the lake to the top, allowing carbon dioxide to be vented continually over time, rather than building up.

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