Raborn’s Salt Works: Part 4, A Cover-up Bigger Than Watergate

By Brad Dison

(Click Here to read “Raborn’s Salt Works: Part 1, Re-Discovery”)
(Click Here to read “Raborn’s Salt Works: Part 2, the Raborn Era”)
(Click Here to read “Raborn’s Salt Works: Part 3, the Paper Mill Connection”)

In December of 1976, the Union Carbide Company began working with the Federal Energy Research and Development Administration in what Dr. Robert Kemmerly, a local physician from Minden, called “a cover-up bigger than Watergate.” Three salt sites in Louisiana — Avery Island salt mine near New Iberia, Vacherie salt dome on the Webster-Bienville parish line, and Raborn’s Salt Works — were being considered for storage of nuclear waste from the nation’s nuclear power plants. The major problem with storing “spent nuclear fuel,” according to Union Carbide Company spokesman Harvey Cobert, is the heat the waste generates. The company was planning to introduce a heat source which could produce heat from 300 to 500 degrees inside the three test sites to see how the salt formations would react. In addition, the Vacherie and Raborn’s salt domes were to be tested for “stability of the salt formations, the amount of water in them, and other things which would indicate whether deep holes could be cut to store nuclear wastes there.” Cobert reassured the public that no spent nuclear fuel would be used in the testing process.

News of the possibility of nuclear storage in Louisiana was met with almost universal disdain. In March of 1977, the Webster Parish Police Jury held a public hearing to discuss nuclear waste storage in north Louisiana. Dr. Kemmerly was just one of nearly 100 people present who objected to the nuclear waste disposal. He pointed out that “this may not be a highly populated area, but it is highly populated as far as I’m concerned – my whole family is involved.” Dr. J.D. Martinez, director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at LSU, argued the benefits of storing nuclear waste in the salt domes because of “the self-healing characteristic of salt whereby pressure and heat would seal any potential leakage by itself should one ever occur.” According to several reports, “the nuclear waste would be radioactive a minimum of 250,000 years, or approximately 24,000 generations.”

Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards

In May 1977, Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards joined the battle against nuclear waste disposal in Louisiana. “I am opposed to Louisiana being used for storing nuclear waste,” the governor said. “Louisiana is doing enough for the rest of the nation by supplying energy and should not be called upon to serve as a nuclear waste dump. I will oppose any such efforts.” In February 1978, the Department of Energy informed the governor’s office that a contract had been approved for test drilling at Vacherie salt dome and Raborn’s salt dome. Workers moved in a drilling rig at Vacherie salt dome and drilling was slated to begin on February 4, 1978. Governor Edwards ordered that the contracts be cancelled until a public hearing could be held. Edwards issued a statement in which he said he would not allow Louisiana to become “a dumping ground for nuclear waste for the rest of the nation.” The idle drilling rig was costing taxpayers $5,000 per day.

On February 27, 1978, after fierce arguments and “hard, nasty name-calling” between Governor Edwards and John O’Leary, the deputy director of the U.S. Department of Energy, the federal and state governments settled on an agreement. As part of the “memorandum of understanding” the Department of Energy agreed not to store nuclear waste in the salt domes. In return, Governor Edwards agreed to permit the testing of the Vacherie and Raborn’s salt domes to determine their suitability for nuclear waste storage.

On April 13, 1978, the Rosamond Drilling Company of West Monroe set up a 97-foot drilling rig at Raborn’s about 600 feet off Louisiana Highway 4. At midnight on the following night, test drilling began at Raborn’s Salt Works. Coring and drilling continued 24 hours a day. At about 7 a.m. on May 6, 1978, workers completed the test drilling and coring operations. They had pulled 46 cores from depths up to 2,651 feet.

Louisiana Governor Dave Treen

On October 27, 1978, Louisiana held is gubernatorial election. Due to a restriction in the state constitution, Governor Edwards was unable to seek a third consecutive term as governor. On March 10, 1980, Dave Treen became the 51st governor of Louisiana. Like Governor Edwards, Governor Treen fought to keep nuclear waste out of Louisiana.

Governor Treen spoke with then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan on the issue. Governor Treen told reporters that on September 4, 1980, he received a telegram from Reagan in which he said that if he [Reagan] were “elected president, he would uphold the 1978 agreement” between the Department of Energy and the State of Louisiana. Two weeks later, President Jimmy Carter sent Governor Treen a vague telegram on the subject. Governor Treen spoke on the vague wording of the president’s telegram in news conferences. “I’m still not clear on the position of President Carter with respect to the 1978 agreement,” the governor said. On November 4, 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected 40th President of the United States.

While in office, President Reagan lived up to the campaign promise he made. On August 4, 1981, Governor Treen vetoed a bill that would have given the state authority to stop federal testing of salt domes in Louisiana in regards to nuclear waste storage. In a written statement which accompanied the veto, the governor said he feared it would revoke the 1978 agreement which gave the state the ultimate authority to prohibit any nuclear waste storage in the state. President Reagan said, “As long as the state [of Louisiana] lives up to its obligation [as set forth in the 1978 agreement], as president, I will see to it that the federal government lives up to all the obligations which it has undertaken in that agreement, including, specifically, the obligation set forth in Paragraph 8, which provides, in the words of the agreement, that the government ‘will not construct any waste repository in Louisiana if the state objects.’ The agreement was entered into in good faith, and if the citizens of this country are to have confidence in its government, such agreements must be honored. They will be [honored] in my administration.”

Despite President Reagan’s promise, several locals claim that nuclear waste was stored inside Raborn’s salt dome. One person said he witnessed military or government vehicles loaded with 55-gallon drums drive onto the salt dome property, and left empty a short time later. Another local said that while riding on backroads near Raborn’s salt dome in mid-1980s, he saw one or two thick circular concrete formations slightly larger than the diameter of a 55-gallon drum with the words “Property of U.S. Government” painted on them. All attempts to locate the concrete formations or any other evidence that nuclear waste was stored at Raborn’s have failed.

Between 1977 and 1982, newspapers included articles on a regular basis, sometimes daily, on the topic of nuclear waste storage at Raborn’s and other Louisiana salt domes, then the articles simply stopped.

Today, the timber at Raborn’s has been harvested. A few trees still remain here and there. The ground is covered with broken limbs and smaller trees from the clear-cutting process. Swamp palmetto plants are still common in the area. Looking at the land today, it is somewhat difficult to imagine what the area looked like when Raborn’s Salt Works was at its peak. Long gone are the old kettles and furnaces used in the production of salt. Peaks on the landscape are a reminder of where the old kettles and furnaces would have sat. The only sizable artifact that remains on the land is the large concrete stack which began this investigation.

It seems that Raborn’s Salt Works has had a cycle of large-scale activity followed by periods of inactivity. It all began with John Fouts and his small-scale salt production, then Maria Theresa and Sampson Raborn’s large-scale salt production, followed by a period of inactivity. Another period of activity came with the production of quicklime and chlorine, followed by another period of inactivity. Yet another period of activity with the study and bitter arguments over the possibility of storing nuclear waste at Raborn’s Salt Works. Since then, all has been quiet at Raborn’s, and for the most part, it has been largely forgotten.

What will be the next large-scale activity at Raborn’s Salt Works, and when will it happen? We will just have to wait and find out.

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Sources:

  1. The Shreveport Journal, March 9, 1977, p.1.
  2. The Shreveport Journal, December 30, 1976, p.7.; The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), December 31, 1976, p.5.
  3. The Shreveport Journal, March 9, 1977, p.1.
  4. The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), April 13, 1977, p.4.
  5. The Shreveport Journal, May 10, 1977, p.1.
  6. The Town Talk (Alexandria, Louisiana), February 7, 1978, p.9.
  7. The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), February 16, 1978, p.6.
  8. The Town Talk (Alexandria, Louisiana), February 23, 1978, p.1.
  9. The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), April 17, 1978, p.5.
  10. The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), May 7, 1978, p.5.
  11. The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), March 11, 1980, p.1.
  12. Daily World (Opelousas, Louisiana), October 26, 1980, p.5.
  13. The Shreveport Journal, November 5, 1980, p.1.
  14. The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), August 5, 1981, p.13.

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