|Copyright , The Associated Press|
OVER THE GULF OF MEXICO (AP) — A blanket of fog lifts, exposing a band of rainbow sheen that stretches off the coast of Louisiana. From an airplane, it's easy to see gas bubbles that mark the spot where an oil platform toppled during a 2004 hurricane, triggering what might be the longest-running commercial oil spill ever to pollute the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet more than a decade after crude started leaking at the site formerly operated by Taylor Energy Company, few people know of its existence. The company has downplayed the leak's extent and environmental impact.
An Associated Press investigation has revealed evidence that the spill is far worse than what Taylor, or the government, have publicly reported during their secretive and costly effort to halt the leak. Presented with AP's findings, the Coast Guard provided a new leak estimate that is about 20 times greater than one recently given by the company.
Outside experts say the spill could be even worse — possibly one of the largest ever in the Gulf.
The roots of the leak lie in an underwater mudslide triggered by Hurricane Ivan's waves in September 2004. That toppled Taylor's platform and buried 28 wells under sediment off Louisiana's coast.
The Coast Guard said in 2008 the leak posed a "significant threat" to the environment, though there is no evidence oil from the site has reached shore. Ian MacDonald, a Florida State University biological oceanography professor and expert witness in a lawsuit against Taylor, said the sheen "presents a substantial threat to the environment" and is capable of harming birds, fish and other marine life.
Even after spending tens of millions of dollars to contain and stop the leak, Taylor says nothing can be done to completely halt the chronic oil sheens.
Last year, the company presented federal regulators with a proposed "final resolution." While the details remain private, it contends experts and government officials agree that the "best course of action ... is to not take any affirmative action" due to the possible environmental risks.
The government has allowed the company to shield other spill-related information from public scrutiny, all in the name of protecting trade secrets.
"The Taylor leak is just a great example of what I call a dirty little secret in plain sight," said SkyTruth President John Amos, a geologist whose environmental watchdog group has monitored the slicks by satellite.
The AP's review of more than 2,300 pollution reports since 2008 found they didn't match official accounts of a diminishing leak. In fact, the reports show a dramatic spike in sheen sizes and oil volumes since Sept. 1, 2014. That came just after federal regulators held a workshop to improve the accuracy of slick estimates reported by a Taylor contractor and started sending government observers on the monitoring flights.
When presented by AP with evidence of the spike, the Coast Guard attributed it to an improved method for estimating the slicks from the air — with the clear implication that far more oil had been spilling for years than had been reported.
After initially providing AP with an outdated, lower estimate, the Coast Guard then disclosed a new estimate roughly six times higher than its 2013 estimate, and 20 times higher than the figure cited by Taylor in a Feb. 19 court filing.
A Taylor spokesman declined to comment on AP's findings.
Five years ago, it took 87 days for BP to cap its blown-out Gulf well and halt the worst offshore oil spill in the nation's history. The disaster exposed weaknesses in the drilling industry's safety culture and gaps in its spill response capabilities.
Taylor's leak — at a site once operated by BP — provided earlier evidence of how difficult it can be for the industry to prevent or stop a spill in an unforgiving environment. But the company has balked at sharing information that could help other offshore operators prepare for a similar incident, saying it's a valuable asset.
Whether it can profit from any industry innovations is debatable. The company sold all its offshore leases and oil and gas interests in 2008, four years after founder Patrick Taylor died.
"It's not normal to have a spill like this," said Ken Arnold, an industry consultant. "The whole thing surprises me. Normally, we fix things much more quickly than this."