Waterkeeper Groups Sue Over Gulf Oil Leak Gushing For Seven Years And Counting

Like many Gulf Coast residents, I was highly skeptical when both the media and the Coast Guard told us that the tar balls we were seeing wash up on our shores in the months following the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster were not from BP’s oil geyser at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. If they weren’t from the massive leak caused by BP, Halliburton, and TransOcean, then where were these tar balls coming from? While we might not know the clear answer to that question, we do have a new suspect.

According to a lawsuit filed this week by the Waterkeeper Alliance and their Gulf Coast affiliates, there is a smaller oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast that has been flowing nonstop for almost seven and a half years. While nowhere near as large as the oil leak from the Deepwater Horizon disaster – the lawsuit estimates the current leak to be releasing a few hundred gallons of oil per day – the fact that it has been flowing for more than seven years allows plenty of time for hundred of thousands, if not low millions, of gallons of oil to be released into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

However, the energy company responsible for the leak – Taylor Energy – says that only about 14 gallons of oil are leaking per day. The Waterkeeper Alliance is basing their analysis on the size and scope of visible oil sheens, similar to how the flow rate was determined for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The lawsuit alleges that Taylor Energy is responsible for allowing oil to flow into the Gulf, a direct violation of the Clean Water Act. They are seeking civil penalties in the amount of $37,500 per day that the oil has been leaking, the maximum possible penalty for such violations under the Act.

So how has an oil leak managed to go undetected, or at least unreported, for the better part of a decade? That’s one of the questions the lawsuit is hoping to answer.

From EcoWatch:

Aided by satellite imagery and research conducted by SkyTruth and aerial observation by SouthWings, the Waterkeeper Alliance and its local Waterkeeper organizations learned that the spill, located approximately 11 miles off the coast of Louisiana, started after an undersea landslide in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan in 2004. An offshore platform and 28 wells were damaged, and since then, Taylor has yet to stop the daily flow of oil from the site. Waterkeeper estimates that hundreds of gallons of oil have leaked from the site each day for the last 7 years.

“The plaintiffs filed suit to stop the spill and lift the veil of secrecy surrounding Taylor Oil’s seven-year long response and recovery operation,” explained Marc Yaggi, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “Neither the government nor Taylor will answer basic questions related to the spill response, citing privacy concerns.” The public deserves to know how this spill happened and why it continues. Coastal communities should understand the risks involved in developing off-shore oil resources and what protections are in place to prevent damage from future spills.

Justin Bloom, the eastern regional director of the Waterkeeper Alliance, points out that none of the recommended reforms from the NOAA assessment of the Deepwater Horizon oil leak have been enacted, allowing for a culture that puts the profits of the oil industry ahead of environmental and human health protections.

In addition to the newly-filed lawsuit, the Waterkeeper Alliance has also released a joint report with SkyTruth and SouthWings (under their joint organization of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium) detailing the failings of our current monitoring and reporting systems for oil disasters. From their new report:

In addition to the lack of reporting, chronic underreporting of oil spills makes it impossible for the public and decision makers to understand the true scope of pollution caused by oil and gas exploration and production. The National Reporting Center’s (NRC) reports lacking estimates of the amount of oil spilled are common. Between October 1, 2010 and September 30, 2011 a total of 2903 oil or refined petroleum (e.g. diesel fuel) spills were reported in the Gulf region. Seventy-seven percent (2221) of those reports did not include an estimate of the quantity of oil spilled. Forty-five percent (1311) identify a suspected responsible party – a strong indicator that those reports were submitted by the actual polluters – and of those, nearly half (620) do not include any spill amount.

The report also includes details about the current Taylor Energy oil leak:

The Taylor Energy site consists of 28 wells damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, buried under a seafloor mudslide triggered by the storm. The platform was destroyed at that time, or so badly damaged that it was subsequently removed. In September 2010 Taylor Energy reported that six of these wells had been plugged and two of the three visible oil plumes were stopped. However that leaves 22 damaged wells still discharging or capable of discharging oil into the Gulf of Mexico, seven years after the damage occurred.

Since discovering the leak, Gulf Monitoring Consortium members have continuously monitored this site with daily satellite imagery, and tracked NRC reports related to this ongoing spill. Taylor Energy and the Coast Guard have acknowledged the leaks and say they average 14 gallons per day. Our analysis of the size of the visible oil slicks, however, suggests the leakage rate is possibly in the range of 100-400 gallons per day, assuming an average slick thickness of one micron (one one-thousandth of a millimeter) and a half-life of oil on the ocean surface of 3-4 days.

We’re currently a little more than three months out from the two year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and to this very day, beaches along the Gulf Coast are still home to tar balls and oil-coated sands and shells. To make matters worse, President Obama announced in his State of the Union address last month that his administration is prepared to open up 38 million acres of the Gulf to oil drilling, along with waters in the Arctic.

If an oil leak can flow in shallow waters along the highly populated Gulf coast for more than seven years without anyone in the industry taking action, how long could a slow leak like this continue in deep waters elsewhere without someone speaking up?