A 'volcano' of oil is flowing in the gulf - and this ex-fisherman is trying to contain it
By DARRYL FEARS | The Washington Post | Published: July 1, 2019
VENICE, La. - Timmy Couvillion first saw the oil plume at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico more than two months ago, but the memory still makes his skin crawl.
His small marine construction company had been hired by the U.S. Coast Guard for its biggest job in years: containing the longest offshore spill in American history. To prepare for the work, his crew dropped a submersible robot 450 feet below the ocean surface to view the source of the pollution through its cyclops eye.
The pictures it sent back were chilling.
A hole as wide as a basketball court had opened on the sea floor and thousands of gallons of Louisiana sweet crude gushed through. Amberjack, a popular sport fish, meandered through millions of toxic oil bubbles rising through the dark water. "We saw a volcano coming up," Couvillion recalled in a recent interview. "I had no idea it was that bad."
Over the nearly 15 years since Hurricane Ivan knocked down a production platform operated by Taylor Energy Co., the company has claimed that less than three gallons a day were seeping out. But video exclusively obtained by The Washington Post, and verified by federal officials familiar with the site, shows a large volume of oil pouring out of an erosion pit where the tower was destroyed.
The government is relying on Couvillion to contain the spill and recover some of the oil. And the amount he has captured so far is proving Taylor Energy wrong.
For Couvillion, a former fishing boat captain turned engineer who was belittled by Taylor Energy as too inexperienced for such a complicated job, told that a containment effort was all but impossible and sued by the company when he dared to press on, success is a vindication.
His business, the Couvillion Group, conceived and designed a containment system weighing more than 200 tons, built it in shops all over southern Louisiana and pieced it together deep underwater. The system has recovered about 63,000 gallons since March, according to Couvillion - virtually eliminating a rainbow-colored slick that has stretched as far as 21 miles.
"I'm in awe of what they did," said Coast Guard Capt. Kristi Luttrell, who chose the Couvillion Group from among six finalists that bid for the job. "We gave them a task and they did it, and they should be very proud of what they've done."
Even Taylor Energy has acknowledged the Couvillion Group's success. However, the company has sued Luttrell for ordering the cleanup, threatening to fine it $40,000 per day, hiring Couvillion and cutting it out of a $7 million project Taylor Energy must ultimately pay for.
"While the initial report from the Coast Guard is encouraging, the government refuses to share with Taylor Energy any verifiable scientific information or data despite the company's multiple requests," Taylor said in a statement. "Taylor Energy remains committed to its role as the Responsible Party and continues to advocate for a response that is grounded in science and prioritizes the well-being of the environment."
In the suit against Couvillion, the company argued that he "was not professionally qualified" to perform the work and was "reckless and grossly negligent" for attempting it. The lawsuits were combined by a federal judge in New Orleans and are now pending.
So far, Couvillion said, he's spent more than $100,000 in legal fees. But defending the project is a matter of principle for a Louisiana boy, born and raised in Plaquemines Parish, where residents are taught to cherish the gulf. Before the Taylor Energy platform collapsed, Couvillion took his family deep-sea fishing there for grouper, snapper and amberjack that he would not eat now.
"No way," he said.
Couvillion is also a conservative who supports the oil and gas industry and the Trump administration's effort to expand offshore drilling to the entire U.S. outer continental shelf. Taylor Energy's spill and its legal fight to persuade the federal government to essentially leave it be, he said, opens the industry to harsh criticism.
"I want you to know that I think that this work can be done safely and that the majority of companies out there produce oil responsibly," Couvillion said. "But Taylor? What Taylor Energy is doing is a black eye on the industry. It makes us look bad."
On a sunny Friday afternoon, dozens of workers scurried across the cluttered deck of the Brandon Bordelon docked in this desolate town of just over 200 residents where the Mississippi River empties into the gulf.
The 260-foot lightweight vessel where Couvillion sat had just returned from the Taylor Energy site, its twin 500-gallon tanks full of water and oil. A pump was chugging the fluids to a device that separated them and a hose sent the oil off the ship to three tanks sitting at the edge of the Mississippi.
Wearing life vests and hard hats, the workers negotiated an obstacle course of metal pipes and crates and the lines that connected them. Among them were mechanics, engineers and commercial divers who shower and eat in pressurized tanks before being lowered into the deep sea to perform tasks that are dangerous even on land.
About a half-dozen Coast Guard personnel carefully monitored the operation, the papers on their clipboards flapping in the breeze.
At the center was Couvillion, leading the $7 million operation.
In three months, his containment unit had brought 400 workers, three oceangoing ships and numerous barges to clean up the spill. But the most impressive thing, say Luttrell and others, is how the contraption was conceived, designed, built, shipped to the gulf, lowered overboard and pieced together by nine divers working eight-hour shifts at the bottom of the ocean.
The Couvillion Group got its start when Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast in 2005. At the time, Couvillion worked for the global engineering firm Oceaneering, writing complicated instructions for divers to follow as they went about their work.
When Katrina nearly blew Plaquemines Parish off the map, Couvillion rushed home to help his family and check his property. They were fine, but people were trapped on roads surrounded by water, homes were flooded, marinas were nearly destroyed and ferry ramps critical to the recovery were damaged.
Couvillion volunteered to help parish officials. Before long, he was repairing ramps so that ferries could move heavy equipment from one side of the Mississippi to another and transport evacuees.
When Oceaneering summoned Couvillion back to work a few weeks later, Benny Rousselle, who was parish president at the time, asked Couvillion to stay and offered him a contract that helped him start his company. Couvillion agreed.
Jack Couch, Couvillion's former mentor at Oceaneering, wasn't surprised when he resigned.
"At Oceaneering I told my boss he will never be here very long," Couch said. "He's way too entrepreneurial."
The Couvillion Group went on to help with the BP oil spill cleanup in 2010, the worst offshore disaster in history.
Taylor Energy was also making history.
A couple of days before Hurricane Ivan struck an area known as Mississippi Canyon Block 20, where Taylor Energy's Saratoga platform stood, diver Eric Tranbarger said he went there with a crew to perform scheduled work. But fierce winds chased them away.
Ivan completely wiped out seven oil platforms, damaged enormous pipelines and stopped more than $20 billion worth of production, records show.
When Tranbarger returned after the hurricane, Taylor Energy's platform had vanished.
That's when Couvillion first found out. "I thought it would be cleaned up and that would be it," he said.
He was wrong. The spill is approaching its 15th year.
The Coast Guard and federal officials had long relied on Taylor Energy's assessment of the spill. But federal scientists were starting to join academic researchers who disputed the company's claim. On Oct. 22, The Washington Post ran a front-page story that questioned the response by both the federal government and Taylor Energy.
Not only did an Interior Department report say the spill would continue another 80 years if left unchecked, two scientists estimated that hundreds of barrels per day were leaking and it would one day overtake the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster as the worst offshore spill on record.
Taylor Energy has disputed all outside estimates of the size of the spill, and company President William Pecue told a local television station that a key report "was fundamentally flawed."
"I can't say it any more different than that," Pecue said. "It grossly exaggerated the release rate that's going on at the site."
The day after The Post published its story, Luttrell ordered Taylor Energy to enter into a contract with an engineering firm to contain the oil. When the company balked, she solicited the bids herself and chose the Couvillion Group.
Luttrell set a wicked pace for completion of the highly technical undertaking. She wanted to see a concept and design of the containment device in the first week of November. She wanted it built and installed in the gulf by the middle of February. And she wanted to test it in March so that it would be fully operational by early May.
On Nov. 2, Couvillion huddled with two key people. One was Couch, his mentor at Oceaneering. The other was Kevin Kennelley, a former BP vice president of engineering who goes by two nicknames: Dr. K and Catfish.
"You feel like you are up there running a 100-yard sprint and the Coast Guard just pulled the gun," Kennelley said. "These things usually take a lot of time."
They locked themselves into "the blue room," an apartment over Couvillion's garage, until they had a design to give Luttrell. "We worked for about five days straight, from can't to can," Couvillion said.
In the blue room, "the three amigos," as Kennelley called them, discussed an underwater dome that would trap oil and tanks that would hold it, but none of it mattered if they couldn't perfect a key tool: an instrument to separate natural gas and water from oil.
The separator's job was to retain the oil, then spit the natural gas and water back into the ocean while sending the oil into storage tanks.
"We spend all of our effort in engineering to make sure hydrocarbons stay in the pipe and stay in the vessel," Kennelley said. If the oil all wound up back in the ocean, that would be an epic fail.
Couch was sure he had it all figured out. A retired diver, pilot and certified jet mechanic, he'd tried to build a separator before, but it hadn't worked. It was a lesson learned.
"I thought because of my experience with the separator, I knew everything I needed to know," Couch said.
While the three amigos worked on their plan, Taylor Energy prepared for court.
Four days before Christmas, Taylor Energy sued Luttrell, the U.S. Coast Guard and Couvillion Group.
It was a familiar move. Taylor Energy had filed several federal lawsuits over the years, including a claim seeking to win back $432 million left in a trust fund to pay for the cleanup.
The company declined to answer questions about the spill, its size or the containment project.
In the lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District Court of Louisiana, Taylor Energy argued that Luttrell's rapid action violated the company's right to due process and compelled it to attend meetings "without its usual legal counsel, its full management team or its scientific consultants."
Luttrell said she had a growing body of new research by government and independent scientists showing that the spill was many times larger than previously thought.
She seized control of the project as Taylor Energy argued that the site should be left alone. Based on the containment system's success, Luttrell's attorneys recently filed a motion to dismiss the company's lawsuit.
"I didn't feel the responsible party was as interested in containing this spill as the government was," she told The Post. "I had to use my authority to do that."
Said Couvillion: "If it wasn't for her, none of this would have happened."
By the middle of February, the Couvillion Group had met Luttrell's mandate. Several barges started moving down the Mississippi River, stopping along the way at five fabrication shops to pick up the unit's heavy equipment.
Four months had passed since Couch, Kennelley and Couvillion emerged from the blue room, and now they were headed to Port Fourchon, Louisiana's southernmost deepwater launch point to the gulf.
Companies in cities across southern Louisiana had built the separator, the porch that would attach to the broken legs of Taylor Energy's fallen platform, the dome that would cover the oil and clamps to hold it all in place.
When it switched on in March, representatives of the Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, a division of the Interior Department, looked on. The unit inhaled water, natural gas and oil the way an exhaust fan over a stove sucks up smoke.
The separator worked, sending oil into five submerged tanks, one of them as round as the Alaska pipeline, and spitting gas and water back into the gulf.
"What went right is that we're collecting 1,200 gallons of oil a day that's not going into the Gulf of Mexico," Kennelley said. "Something had to be done, man."
"I'm extremely happy with the work the Couvillion Group has done," Luttrell said. She called the containment "unlike anything I have seen." It's more impressive even than the BP response, she said, because the mudslide swept away the platform and buried the source of where the oil is spewing. "No one knows where it is."
As he watched the cleanup play out in Plaquemines Parish, Benny Rousselle thought it's about time.
Now a councilman for the parish, he said support for the oil industry is strong and people understand that problems happen. But the Taylor Energy spill, he said, "is excessive."
He's proud of Couvillion's work. For parish residents, the Mississippi River and the gulf "are the lifeline and lifeblood" that help them get by, a thing to be cherished.
"We're almost born with webbed feet."
A worker checks the amount of oil processed into a tanker after being collected from the Taylor Oil spill.
BRYAN TARNOWSKI/THE WASHINGTON POST