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Coast Guard orders cleanup of massive 14-year oil spill in Gulf of Mexico

By DARRYL FEARS | The Washington Post | Published: November 20, 2018

WASHINGTON — The federal government has issued an ultimatum to an energy company to stop an oil spill that has been leaking thousands of gallons into the Gulf of Mexico every day for more than 14 years.

In an order issued by the U.S. Coast Guard, Taylor Energy Co. was told to "institute a. . . system to capture, contain, or remove oil" from the site or face a $40,000 per day fine for failing to comply. The order was issued Oct. 23, a day after The Washington Post reported that the spill was far greater than Interior Department estimates, themselves based on company data.

Up to 700 barrels of oil per day have leaked from Taylor Energy's former site 12 miles off the coast of Louisiana since the platform was destroyed during Hurricane Ivan in 2004, according to an analysis issued by the Justice Department. Each barrel contains 42 gallons. Based on reports from contractors hired by Taylor Energy, the government had previously estimated that the spill amounted to just 0 to 55 barrels per day.

The spill amounts to at least 1.5 million barrels so far, and up to 3.5 million barrels. That would rival the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest offshore spill in the nation's history, which spewed 4 million barrels of oil into gulf waters.

The Justice Department analysis by Oscar Garcia-Pineda, a geoscience consultant who specializes in remote sensing of oil spills, was commissioned as part of the government's defense against a lawsuit by Taylor. The company is requesting that the Interior Department return more than $400 million placed in a trust to pay for plugging the wells and cleaning the site.

Acting on the analysis, the Coast Guard requested that Taylor attend an early November meeting of a Unified Command of federal agencies overseeing the spill and present at least two plans for implementing a containment system and timeline for completing it. By the end of the meeting on Nov. 9, government officials would choose a plan.

A Coast Guard spokesman, John Fitzgerald, said Tuesday that Taylor Energy presented a plan Nov. 8, but the company's proposal was rejected in favor of one submitted by an independent contractor because it "provided both the best capability and timeline for responding" to the ongoing spill.

Taylor has already plugged nine of the 28 wells at its platform. The company has disputed that the wells, buried under 100 feet of mud from an underwater avalanche triggered by the hurricane, are the source of a massive spill. It said "the best science" shows that the wells were low pressure, meaning that little oil remained at the site.

"The Coast Guard issued its order relying on deeply-flawed analysis and inflated volumes" by Garcia-Pineda, the Taylor statement said. The company called the analysis a legal tactic by the Justice Department.

"The inflated volumes are completely inconsistent with the scientific record built over a decade by the world's leading scientists, including those regularly relied upon by the government," the Taylor statement said. Those scientists have said oil has contaminated soil at the site and could be released if it is disturbed.

"Taylor Energy's greater concern is that the government is leading the response down a dangerous path that will create an environmental impact that currently does not exist," Taylor said. "If there were anything legally permissible and effective that Taylor Energy could do in an environmentally responsible manner to stop the sheen, we would have already done it."

The Taylor site's rainbow-colored oil slicks are often visible for miles and the broken wells release so much oil that researchers have needed respirators to study the damage.

Garcia-Pineda pointedly said the Coast Guard estimates based on Taylor Energy's reporting were wrong. There were several instances when the Guard reported low estimates on the same days he was finding heavy layers of oil in the field. "There is abundant evidence that supports the fact that these reports... are incorrect," Garcia-Pineda wrote. Later he said: "My conclusion is that [Coast Guard] reports are not reliable."

The Taylor spill was hidden for years as the company and the Coast Guard declined to inform the public that it existed. Environmental groups that monitor the gulf were unaware that the broken wells were leaking for six years - until the catastrophic BP Deepwater oil spill in April 2010.

While monitoring that spill, both the Gulf Restoration Network, a conservation group, and SkyTruth, a nonprofit organization that uses satellite images to monitor spills, stumbled upon oil slicks that were unrelated to the Deepwater Horizon site.

"It was there all the time, longer than the BP spill," said John Amos, founder and president of Sky Truth.

The two groups traced the spill to Taylor Energy's platform and called the Coast Guard. A group of conservationists eventually took Taylor Energy to court, arguing that its agreement with the federal government to clean the site without the public's knowledge amounted to a secret deal "that was inconsistent with national policy," which calls for citizen input under the Clean Water Act.

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