The Lake Peigneur Drilling Disaster

Apr 4, 2022 0 comments

Near the northern tip of Vermilion Bay in the US state of Louisiana, lies a small saltwater lake called Peigneur. Although pretty modest by surface area (about 1,100 acres), the lake is 200 feet deep, making Peigneur the deepest lake in the state. However, just over forty years ago, Lake Peigneur was an unremarkable body of water just ten foot deep, until an unusual man-made disaster on November 20, 1980 changed the lake and the surrounding land forever.

Lake Peigneur

Before the disaster, the lake was a popular destination for fishing and other outdoor recreational activities. A small island in the middle of the lake was home to a beautiful botanical park. Additionally, this region was famous for its massive salt deposit which were mined by the Diamond Crystal Salt Company. Part of the large salt mine was directly under Lake Peigneur. It’s a known fact that underground salt deposit can cause large pockets of space to form, which can often trap oil. In order to explore whether the bed of Lake Peigneur contained petroleum and if it did, whether that oil could be profitably extracted, the oil company Texaco Inc. was contracted to set up an exploratory oil rig directly above the mine.

On the morning of November 20, 1980, the crew of the oil rig was probing the lake bed when they ran into a small problem—their 14-inch drill bit had become stuck at a depth of about 1,230 feet. When they attempted to free the drill, the men heard a series of loud popping sounds from below the rig and the rig started to tilt precariously. Realizing that something serious was taking place, the crew was ordered to evacuate.

Shortly after abandoning the rig, the men watched in amazement as the ten-foot deep lake swallowed the entire oil rig, and in its place a maelstrom started to form. The miners had accidentally penetrated the main shaft of the mine below, and the lake was draining into it.

Barges caught in the quarter-mile wide whirlpool in Lake Peigneur.

Down below in the mine shaft, electrician Junius Gaddison was the first to notice that something was wrong. Gaddison was working on the 1,300-foot level checking wire supplies when an unusual banging noise caught his attention. Gaddison stopped working, and as he trained his eyes towards the drift, he saw a muddy stream more than two feet deep advancing toward the station. Gaddison at once raised the alarm. That morning about fifty men were working below in the mines, with some at an even lower level of 1,500 feet. Luckily, the miners had a well-practiced evacuation procedure and all escaped the mine without incident.

Meanwhile the swirling vortex of water and mud grew, pulling into the abyss several barges, a tugboat, a dock, another drilling platform, and a big part of the nearby Jefferson Island. The water entered the mine with so much force that it caused a geyser of compressed air, water, and salt to be launched 400 feet into the air out of the opening of the mine. Within the next three hours, the entire lake disappeared into the mine. So much water drained into the caverns that the flow of the Delcambre Canal that usually empties the lake into Vermilion Bay was reversed, causing salt water from the Gulf of Mexico to flow into what was now a dry lakebed. This backflow created for a few days a 164-foot waterfall, the tallest ever in the state of Louisiana.

The backwards flow of the normally outflowing Delcambre Canal temporarily created the biggest waterfall in Louisiana.

The lake once more filled with water, except this time, it was salty. Within three days, a ten-foot-deep freshwater lake was turned into a 200 feet deep saltwater lake. After the lake had filled to its maximum level, several of the submerged barges popped up, surprisingly intact. Jefferson island survived, but the locally famous botanical garden which it contained was totally decimated.

The lake today. This chimney, once belonging to a house on the old lake’s edge, now pokes above the water. Photo: Ryan Cheung/Flickr

As compensation for damages, Texaco ended up paying $45 million to the owners of the mine and other local businesses, including $12.8 million to the botanical garden and plant nursery, Live Oak Gardens. The Mine Safety and Health Administration released a report on the disaster in August 1981 but it failed to identify the cause of the miscalculation. The mine was finally closed in December 1986.


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