Lawsuit proceeds against Taylor Energy over a 9-year Gulf leak

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the July 29, 2013 edition.)

Early last week, U.S. District Court Judge Susie Morgan in New Orleans paved the way for a lawsuit to continue against Taylor Energy Co. for oil leaking eleven miles off the southeast Louisiana coast since 2004. She denied most of the company's motions to dismiss and denied a motion to stay the lawsuit. A date for a bench trial for Apalachicola Riverkeeper et al. v. Taylor Energy Co. will be set on August 16, Morgan said.

The suit, claiming violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, was filed in February of last year by Apalachicola Riverkeeper, Louisiana Environmental Action Network on behalf of Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, and the New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance to stop Taylor from discharging oil.

"Now that the suit can continue, I hope Taylor will take things more seriously and cease the flow of oil," Paul Orr, Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper in Baton Rouge, said last week. "And I hope this sends the oil and gas industry a message that it isn't free to damage land, water and wildlife--the foundations of our unique local culture--without consequences."

Marc Yaggi, executive director of the Waterkeeper Alliance in New York, said the suit is needed because of Taylor's slow pace in staunching the flow and secrecy surrounding its response to the spill. He said the spill threatens public resources. Waterkeeper Alliance is a member of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, a group that collects and analyzes sky and surface images to investigate oil pollution.

Taylor Energy maintains a New Orleans office engaged in containing the leak. In 2008, Taylor sold its Gulf of Mexico assets to two companies, Korea National Oil Corp. USA and Samsung Oil & Gas USA.

The U.S. Coast Guard, as the federal on-scene coordinator under a Unified Command with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, has monitored Taylor's discharges from Mississippi Canyon 20 since the platform and a connected 28 wells were damaged during Hurricane Ivan.

"We and the rest of the Unified Command have responded to the Taylor Energy site since Ivan triggered a mudslide and toppled Taylor's platform in Sept. 2004," Lushan Hannah, chief of the Incident Management Division at Coast Guard Sector New Orleans, said last week. "Since 2008, an aircraft contracted by Taylor Energy flies the Gulf every morning at the same time to observe, photograph and report on the sheen. The current company is Southern Seaplane. The pilot and Taylor Energy's spill management team, Witt O'Brien's in Slidell, phone in a daily National Response Center report."

The sheen changes in size from day to day, Hannah said. "On a calm day, the expression of oil on the water's surface is larger," he said. "In rough waters or storms, the sheen is smaller, and sometimes there's no sheen at all."

The size of the surface sheen has diminished in the years since Ivan, Hannah said. "We've worked with Taylor Energy and BSEE to decommission the site and contain leaking oil," he said. "In 2008 and the first half of 2009, work started on intervention wells that were drilled to mitigate wells that may have been the source of the sheen," he said. The rig was moved off site and well-intervention operations were halted in mid-2009 before hurricane season from July to Sept. 2009. The rig returned to work in Oct. 2009 for nine months until the next storm season. That nine-months-on, three-months-off pattern continued until nine well interventions were completed in April 2011, Hannah said. Removal of the platform deck and debris collection were finished in July 2011.

"Since 2009, a subsea containment system funded by Taylor and built for the site has been used to capture oil," Hannah said. The equipment's containment domes sit on the mud line and capture hydrocarbons as they're released. A subsea collector and separator stores oil. Collected oil is brought ashore for disposal by an environmental waste contractor.

The sheen at the Taylor site has averaged about 3 gallons a day recently, Hannah said. "Average annual discharge since our observations began in July 2008 is 4,500 gallons per year," he said.

"We continue to evaluate environmental effects from the leak, and have brought in other stakeholders--local, state and federal agencies--to assess ecological risk," Hannah said. "The spill has not had a major impact on fish, birds and other wildlife, as far as we know. There has been no known shoreline impact. No oil has washed ashore since our response began in 2008, as far as we can tell."

Taylor Energy has spent over $400 million on decommissioning and containment activities since 2008, Hannah said. In Sept. 2004, the U.S. Dept. of Interior ordered Taylor to put $500 million into an account for the cost of the cleanup.

Taylor's now-small New Orleans staff has been solely involved in decommissioning and containing the leak, Hannah said. He said questions about the cost of aerial monitoring and subsea containment have to be directed to Taylor Energy. But Taylor's New Orleans office didn't respond to phone calls last week.

On March 5, the Waterkeeper Alliance and Gulf of Mexico Waterkeeper groups filed a Freedom of Information Act suit in federal court in the District of Columbia against the U.S. Coast Guard for its denial of two FOIA requests regarding Taylor's leak.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is among those monitoring Taylor's sheen. "This sheen is not of one specific, unchanging size," NOAA spokesman John Leslie said last week. "Its size differs every day. That isn't to say that it is not a significant size--significance being in the eyes of the beholder."

NOAA views imagery from National Aeronautics and Space Administration's MODIS, or Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, and Landsat satellites to look for oil slicks and forwards information to the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA users, Leslie said. He said NOAA can't comment on the size of Taylor Energy's discharges with any precision at this time.

Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper Paul Orr said the slick is regularly 15 to 20 miles long and a few hundred feet wide. "The times we've visited it by plane or saw it on satellite, it was in that range," he said. Reports of sheen sizes and estimated spill volumes are often significantly lower than what he has observed.

SkyTruth and the Gulf Monitoring Consortium have watched the site since May 2010, or the early days of the Deepwater Horizon spill. "That's when we noticed the slick on satellite images," said David Manthos, spokesman for nonprofit SkyTruth in Sheperdstown, W.V. SkyTruth uses satellite imagery and aerial photos to research environmental issues.

In February 2012, SkyTruth estimated the cumulative amount of crude oil leaked by Taylor Energy from Sept. 17, 2004 to the end of 2011 as somewhere between 251,677 and 1.174 million gallons, based on differing scenarios for the slick's thickness. SkyTruth used data from National Response Center reports, which the group assumed were from flyovers paid for by Taylor. Sometimes the reports were spotty, and SkyTruth filled in gaps with observations from satellite images.

"We came up with a range of possible daily flow rates for 2011, from a low-scenario of 37 gallons per day to a high-scenario of 174 gallons per day," Manthos said. "We haven't revisited the cumulative observations--from which we extrapolated the daily flows--since then. But we probably will at some point."

Jonathan Henderson, Coastal Resiliency Organizer with the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans, said Taylor's sheen may have had an environmental impact. "I've been on the water in the sheen in a boat, and my eyes burned, the fumes were heavy and I became light headed," he said last week. "It's hard to imagine that wildlife, birds or fish that came into contact with it wouldn't be affected."

Henderson wonders if any government agency or Taylor Energy has looked for shoreline impacts. "The Taylor leak has been ongoing since 2004 so why only now are other local, state and federal agencies being brought in to assess ecological risk?," he asked.

Henderson said he's concerned that a major hurricane might come barreling through and do more harm.

He prefaced his comments by saying GRN isn't part of the current litigation. "But GRN has monitored the Taylor leak from the air and sea when opportunities arise," he said. "We're a member of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium and we work collaboratively on monitoring." He has met with the Coast Guard on other Guff oil leaks but not the Taylor leak.

Henderson expressed support for the Coast Guard. "I'm confident that the USCG would do whatever's within their capacity, with the tools at their disposal, to fix the Taylor problem. If they could have done something, they would have."

Henderson said the response side of Gulf oil and gas activity lags exploration and production. "This needs to change immediately," he said. "Gulf communities, wildlife and the environment continue to pay dearly for this discrepancy."

Plaintiffs have asked the court to order Taylor to pay the U.S. Treasury $37,500 a day until the company shuts its leaking wells, plus an award of other civil penalties and attorney's fees. Plaintiffs are represented by Adam Babich and Machelle Lee Hall at Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. Taylor Energy is represented by Bret Sumner and Michael Beatty of Beatty & Wozniak PC and Paul Goodwine and Taylor Mouledoux of Slattery, Marino & Roberts. end