20 November 1980: The Lake Peigneur disaster

On this day 34 years ago, blundering oilmen turned a ten-foot deep freshwater lake in Louisiana into a saltwater lake over a thousand feet deep.

How do you turn a ten-foot deep freshwater lake into a saltwater one over a thousand feet deep? The residents of Lake Peigneur in Louisiana found out on 20 November 1980.

That day, oil giant Texaco had been drilling in the lake, when it pierced the bottom. Directly below the water was a salt mine operated by The Diamond Crystal Salt Company, which yielded around 100,000 tons of salt a year.

Just as what happens when you pull the plug in your bath – but on a far larger scale – the water gushed into the hole and created a giant whirlpool. The drilling platform was the first to go, followed by several barges loaded with rock salt.

Many locals made a living from a shrimp industry on the lake – their boats disappeared down the hole as well. As did Live Oak Gardens, a plant nursery and tourist attraction. Around $1m-worth of plants and trees were lost to the maelstrom.

A listed house that belonged to 19th century actor Joseph Jefferson was left clinging to the edge of the crater three-quarters-of-a-mile-wide. It continued to widen as the salt dissolved.

The lake had until then emptied into the Gulf of Mexico via the Delcambre Canal. But so much water poured into the salt mine that day that the canal began to flow the other way, dragging salt water from the gulf into the lake, and turning the water saline.

Miraculously, nobody was killed. However, hundreds of jobs were lost as the salt mining and shrimping industries disappeared and the ecosystem was permanently changed.

Today, natural gas is stored in caverns around the lake. In September 2014, a local pressure group, Save Lake Peigneur, was successful in overturning a decision to expand the gas storage facilities. There have been signs, they say, of bubbling in the water.

Recommended

27 November 1924: Macy’s first Thanksgiving Day parade
This day in history

27 November 1924: Macy’s first Thanksgiving Day parade

On this day in 1924, New York department store Macy's held its first Thanksgiving Day parade. It would soon become a city institution, kicking off the…
27 Nov 2020
27 November 1967: Charles de Gaulle vetoes Britain's entry to the EEC
This day in history

27 November 1967: Charles de Gaulle vetoes Britain's entry to the EEC

On this day in 1967, French president Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain's attempt to join the European Economic Community, claiming Britain didn’t agre…
27 Nov 2020
26 November 1992: The Queen volunteers to pay income tax
This day in history

26 November 1992: The Queen volunteers to pay income tax

With Britain in recession and Windsor Castle having recently caught fire, the Queen's request to pay income tax was accepted by Parliament, on this da…
26 Nov 2020
25 November 1952: “The Mousetrap” premieres in London
This day in history

25 November 1952: “The Mousetrap” premieres in London

On this day in 1952, Agatha Christie’s murder mystery play “The Mousetrap” began a run of over 28,000 performances in the West End, to become the long…
25 Nov 2020

Most Popular

The next 20 years: five new technologies on the horizon
Global Economy

The next 20 years: five new technologies on the horizon

What will everyday life be like in two decades’ time? Matthew Partridge peers into his crystal ball.
12 Nov 2020
This week’s rally in value stocks is just the beginning
Value investing

This week’s rally in value stocks is just the beginning

The arrival of a vaccine this week saw huge gains in the markets and investors switching out of big-tech growth stocks and into “value” stocks in more…
13 Nov 2020
Share tips of the week
Share tips

Share tips of the week

MoneyWeek’s comprehensive guide to the best of this week’s share tips from the rest of the UK's financial pages.
13 Nov 2020