The Coast Guard has ordered the company responsible for an oil spill that has been leaking into the Gulf of Mexico for 14 years to clean up the environmental catastrophe or face a $40,000 per day fine.
The spill has largely gone unnoticed until recently but it is one of the largest spills ever in North America.
Taylor Energy Co. was ordered last month by the U.S. government to “institute a … system to capture, contain, or remove oil” in the Gulf of Mexico, where a former site operated by the company has been steadily leaking. The order was first publicized this week.
Taylor allowed a broken oil platform off the coast of southeast Louisiana to leak an estimated 10,500 gallons to 29,000 gallons of oil per day, five to 13 times larger than the government’s initial estimates.
“The worst-case estimate of the daily volume of release far exceeds previous estimates and is in the order of hundreds of barrels per day,” the Coast Guard told Taylor.
The Oct. 23 order commands Taylor to address the crisis and asserts that the company “must eliminate the surface sheen and avoid the deficiencies associated with prior containment systems,” or face a $40,000 per day fine.
Taylor slammed the decision in a statement. “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 company argued.
By contrast, Dustin Renaud, the communications director for the Gulf Restoration Network, said that the Coast Guard’s decision was overdue, according to the Times-Picayune. “The time to clean this up was 14 years ago,” he said.
Taylor’s oil spill has been a source of concern for some time. The site — Mississippi Canyon-20, which lies south of the Mississippi River delta — took a hit from Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The storm wrecked Taylor’s platform and triggered the massive spill, resulting in years of legal back-and-forth between the company and the Interior Department, which has contended that Taylor has an obligation to fix the oil wells at the site.
Taylor no longer produces oil and a trust account was established in 2008, which the government required in order to allow the company to decommission its wells. Nine of the 28 wells at the Mississippi delta site have been plugged and Taylor says it can’t reach the others without risking more spillage. The company now wants the rest of the $666 million trust to be returned to it, arguing it has done everything it can, but the Interior Department says Taylor needs to finish plugging the remaining wells.
A 2015 Associated Press investigation found that oil spill totals put forth by Taylor dramatically understated the actual extent of the leak. Reports from contractors hired by Taylor initially placed the total at around zero to 55 barrels of oil spilled per day, with each barrel consisting of approximately 42 gallons. But the spill has in fact generated between 1.5 million and 3.5 million barrels.
For comparison, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, considered the worst in U.S. history, spilled 4 million barrels and is still undergoing cleanup.
Reports of the extent of the spill have strengthened the government’s stance that the spill needs to be fully addressed by the company. With the recent Coast Guard order, Taylor will now have to address the disaster or pay up.
But environmental groups and activists say the spill poses an extreme risk to the area’s ecosystems and some argue the Coast Guard took far too long to act.
Researchers have had to wear respirators in order to study the extent of the spill’s damage, but neither Taylor nor the government actively shared information about the crisis for years.
The Coast Guard order comes in the midst of an ongoing push by the Trump administration to expand offshore drilling in virtually all federal waters. That move has generated broad bipartisan opposition from all coastal states, with many citing oil spills as a leading point of concern.