Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Oil Companies Were Not Held Accountable for 10.8 Million Gallons of Oil Spilled in Gulf of Mexico

Energy
Oil Companies Were Not Held Accountable for 10.8 Million Gallons of Oil Spilled in Gulf of Mexico
A massive oil spill threatened St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana on Sept. 18, 2005 when an oil tank was forced from its foundation by Hurricane Katrina's massive storm surge. Bob McMillan / FEMA

The devastation to lives and homes caused by Hurricane Katrina masked a massive crude oil spill that the hurricane caused by damaging rigs and storage tanks in the Gulf of Mexico. The damage was made worse a few weeks later when Hurricane Rita struck the area. The federal regulators that oversee oil and gas operation in the Gulf estimated that more than 400 pipelines and 100 drilling platforms were damaged, leading to 10.8 million gallons of crude oil spilling into the Gulf — the same amount as the Exxon Valdez oil spill.


Now, 14 years later, not one assessment of the damage to natural resources has been carried out. There is no plan to help restore impacted ecosystems. And not one of the 140 responsible parties has faced a fine or even a citation, according to an exclusive investigation by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.

Instead of having to pay fines, the companies whose oil spilled into the water have actually been reimbursed $19 million from a federal trust for the oil they lost, claiming that the spills and damage were caused by an "unforeseeable act of God," according to the review by ProPublica and its partners.

The Act of God defense holds a lot of weight in Louisiana. Adam Babich, former director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, told the journalists at ProPublica and its partners that while the act of God defense does not usually release oil companies from liability, it does weaken arguments to hold them accountable.

"We don't normally penalize [companies] for act of God events," said Greg Langley of the Department of Environmental Quality to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate."We just get right to remediation."

The full scale of the damage may never be fully understood without a comprehensive review and assessment. Even a tiny amount of spilled crude oil has a devastating impact and damages coastline that protects inland areas from storms.

The oil that seeps into the marshes affects worms and snails, which are eaten by birds and fish. Marsh plants begin to die, which allows saltwater to eat away at the coastline. That allows the next storm to push further inland, according to Darryl Malek-Wiley, an organizer with the Sierra Club, who spoke to the ProPublica investigation.

"I think it's an outrage that they haven't made any progress," Malek-Wiley said to ProPublica. "Here we are 14 years later and they haven't done anything. A year after Katrina, things had settled down significantly. I think the oil response team should have been moving forward with environmental damage claims."

The inaction seems to violate the Oil Pollution Act, passed by Congress in response to the Valdez oil spill. That law mandates federal and state agencies to work with the companies to assess damage to natural resources. After a comprehensive report is completed on the value of the affected plants, soil, water and wildlife, the responsible parties must foot the bill for restoration efforts, according to the ProPublica review.

"It's pretty clear what the value of money is in a place like Louisiana, where we have these restoration needs," Steve Cochran, associate vice president for coastal resilience at the Environmental Defense Fund, to the investigative journalists at ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. "Every dollar that's not collected [in fines] is a dollar that we can't spend on this work."

By not completing an environmental assessment, Louisiana is missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental remediation money. Cochran said that if the oil companies responsible for the rigs and storage tanks paid for restoration at the same rate that BP paid for the Deepwater Horizon spill, then Louisiana would have $700 million more in its restoration budget, according to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.

"It's a lot of work that's desperately needed but that is only possible because that [BP settlement] money became available," Cochran said to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.

Since Hurricane Katrina swept over the Gulf waters with category 5 strength, nothing has been done to protect against storm-related oil spills or the damage to the environment, according to the investigation.

Scientists predict that future storms, which will increase in intensity due to the climate crisis, will exacerbate environmental damage.

"In the Gulf, storms are predicted to be less frequent but more intense when they do come," said Sunshine Van Bael, an ecologist at Tulane University who evaluated damage to marsh ecosystems from the BP oil spill, to to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. "One thing that storms do is, if oil has been buried underneath the marsh because it wasn't rehabilitated, a storm could come along and whip that back up to the surface. So, the aftereffects of the oil spills might be greater [with climate change] since the storms are predicted to be more intense."

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York, a polluted nearly 2 mile-long waterway that is an EPA Superfund site. Jonathan Macagba / Moment / Getty Images

Thousands of Superfund sites exist around the U.S., with toxic substances left open, mismanaged and dumped. Despite the high levels of toxicity at these sites, nearly 21 million people live within a mile of one of them, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Read More Show Less
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The National Weather Service station in Chatham, Massachusetts, near the edge of a cliff at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. Bryce Williams / National Weather Service in Boston / Norton

A weather research station on a bluff overlooking the sea is closing down because of the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less
Trending
Amsterdam is one of the Netherlands' cities which already has "milieuzones," where some types of vehicles are banned. Unsplash / jennieramida

By Douglas Broom

  • If online deliveries continue with fossil-fuel trucks, emissions will increase by a third.
  • So cities in the Netherlands will allow only emission-free delivery vehicles after 2025.
  • The government is giving delivery firms cash help to buy or lease electric vehicles.
  • The bans will save 1 megaton of CO2 every year by 2030.

Cities in the Netherlands want to make their air cleaner by banning fossil fuel delivery vehicles from urban areas from 2025.

Read More Show Less
Protestors stage a demonstration against fracking in California on May 30, 2013 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A bill that would have banned fracking in California died in committee Tuesday.

Read More Show Less
EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER / E+ / Getty Images

By Brett Wilkins

As world leaders prepare for this November's United Nations Climate Conference in Scotland, a new report from the Cambridge Sustainability Commission reveals that the world's wealthiest 5% were responsible for well over a third of all global emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.

Read More Show Less