DAISETTA, Texas – The massive sinkhole, with the crumbling dirt around its edges resembling sharp teeth, had managed to swallow up oil tanks and barrels, tires, telephone poles and several vehicles.
Daisetta residents feared the appetite of the sinkhole, which began as a 20-foot hole in the ground on Wednesday but had grown to 900 feet across and 260 feet deep, would continue unabated Thursday and threaten nearby homes.
But by Thursday afternoon officials and geologists were hopeful the monstrous sinkhole was no longer as hungry.
"We're not sure it has completely stopped. We're confident it has slowed down," said Tom Branch, coordinator of the Liberty County Office of Emergency Management. "We feel a whole lot better today."
A day earlier, Branch, other officials and residents had watched as large chunks of earth, as well as the oil field equipment, trees and vehicles that sat on them tumbled into the crater. The mixture of oil and mud at the bottom of the sinkhole made it look like a tar pit.
Carl Norman, a geologist working with officials, said he planned to measure the change of ground elevation around the sinkhole over the next few days to try to determine whether it is still growing or is now stabilized.
But a final answer on the sinkhole's stability might not come anytime soon.
"It will be at least three months before we can say if it's stable or not," he said.
Jayme Downs, whose home is located about 300 yards away from the sinkhole, said she wasn't sure if her nerves could hold out for three months.
"I'm very worried," Downs said as she and her 5-year-old daughter Saira stood in front of the local high school, located about a quarter of a mile away from the sinkhole. Classes were in session on Thursday.
"You don't know what is going to happen. There's no way to tell. The whole town could cave in. You never know," she said.
Officials tried to calm residents' fears by saying that any more growth by the sinkhole would probably be very slow and if nearby homes were in danger, there would be advance warning.
"The cavity is going to grow slowly, if it does decide to continue to grow," said Norman. "This thing may become stable or it may be collapsing six months from now. But it will be a slow process. So people around here will have a warning."
There are about 100 homes in the immediate area of the sinkhole.
Cpl. Hugh Bishop with the Liberty County Sheriff's Office said no homes had been evacuated and there had been no reports of injuries in Daisetta, a town of about 1,000 residents located about 60 miles northeast of Houston.
The sinkhole had not dramatically moved closer to Farm-to-Market Road 770, the main roadway through the town, which had been one of the major concerns, Bishop said.
Officials are still trying to figure out what prompted the sinkhole.
Daisetta sits on a salt dome, a natural formation created below the ground over millions of years where oil brine and natural gas accumulate.
Daisetta was once a booming oil town and today various working oil derricks still dot the landscape.
Norman said oil drilling from over the years might have weakened the salt dome and caused it to collapse.
But the sinkhole might also be a natural occurrence caused by ground water leaking into the salt dome and dissolving parts of it.
Oil production usually doesn't affect the integrity of a salt dome, said Don Van Nieuwenhuise, a geosciences professor at the University of Houston.
Van Nieuwenhuise said he thinks the sinkhole is probably related to saltwater waste that is being stored underground in the area. The saltwater is a byproduct of oil production and has to be stored underground so it won't contaminate water supplies and the environment.
"It probably fractured part of the salt dome and it's leaking out," he said.
Investigators with the Texas Railroad Commission were checking pipelines and trying to determine if any regulations have been violated. Officials with Texas Natural Resources and Conservation were monitoring air and water quality. So far, no pollutants have been detected.
Sunoco, which manufactures petroleum and petrochemical products, secured two 6-inch crude oil pipelines near the sinkhole that had started to leak Wednesday.