August 16, 2022

Victory – Finally – Over The Longest Oil Spill in US History

It’s hard to believe an oil spill could go on for 18 years without much fanfare.

Yet off the coast of Louisiana, a sunken oil rig owned by Taylor Energy has been spraying oil into the Gulf of Mexico since 2004. Hurricane Ivan struck the Gulf Coast that year, causing a landslide that knocked out and sank Taylor’s drilling rig. The impact opened a crater the size of a basketball court on the seafloor, and Taylor’s sunken wells have since leaked oil into the Gulf.

There’s finally some good news this year: After trying various caustic tactics to avoid accountability, Taylor is now liquidating to pay over $400 million in cleanup costs. Earthjustice and Gulf-based environmental group Healthy Bay achieved this victory after years of Taylor’s legal tactics to stop the cleanup indefinitely.

At the time of the spill, Taylor downplayed the extent of the spill, claiming less than 3 gallons of oil per day. The government took Taylor at his word and did nothing for years.

The reality was much worse: According to one federal expert, 29,274 gallons per day flow through the leak.

“Taylor has been an eye-opening experience for us,” says Cynthia Sarthou, Louisiana resident and executive director of Healthy Bay. Sarthou was a Seattle attorney in the late ’90s when he saw an ad for a new group of environmental watchdogs that promised to investigate environmental injustices in his home region of the Gulf.

Cynthia Sarthou, Managing Director of Healthy Bay

Cynthia Sarthou, Managing Director of Healthy Bay

In 2010, Healthy Bay accidentally discovered Taylor’s oil spill while on a research assignment for the BP Deepwater Horizon spill.

Sarthou recalls, “My staff flying there said, ‘There’s miles of raw slick, but not in this BP disaster area. What is this?’ That’s why we started researching,” he said.

The Healthy Gulf has pressured the government for years to confine the oil, sometimes 21 miles above the water’s surface, to Taylor. There were several half-hearted efforts to plug the sunken wells, but oil continued to flow into the Gulf.

Fossil fuel disasters in the Gulf have become very common as the oil and gas industry seeks to expand its footprint in the Gulf by building new polluting infrastructure that will keep the country locked in fossil fuels for decades to come. Companies report thousands of oil spills to NOAA each year; others are not reported. These are caused by tanker fires, faulty equipment, sinking or hurricanes.

Oil spills brutalize marine wildlife, causing poisoning, heart damage, liver enlargement, immune dysfunction and an overall painful death. There is no safe level of oil in the Gulf: any amount can cause major environmental damage and it is difficult to completely contain spills. The best way to protect the bay is to completely eliminate the risk of oil disasters; this is one reason why Earthjustice is tackling oil and gas development in the Gulf at every stage of the process. This year we opened a new office in Houston, Texas to bring the war to the doorstep of the oil industry.

In 2018, Earthjustice began investigating the spill in partnership with Healthy Bay. Following a front page report about the Taylor leak Washington postAttracting national media attention over the oil spill, the US Coast Guard sought to hire a recovery company to seal and extract the oil.

Taylor used a number of sticky tactics to block work on the oil spill or pay for its cleanup. The company sued the government and the improvement contractor to halt containment efforts. Earthjustice intervened on behalf of Healthy Bay to defend the Coast Guard’s actions – so Taylor sought court permission to spy on Healthy Bay’s defense efforts, which the Court rejected. Meanwhile, wealthy Louisiana billionaire Phyllis Taylor, the former owner of Taylor Energy, Millions of tax breaks was dependent on the cleaning cost, which made it convenient for him to extend the cleaning. As cases continued, the recovery of the spill continued with the recovery of the oil, even as the wells continued to burst.

A rainbow glow in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011 from the fallen Taylor Energy platform.  Oil has been leaking since 2004.

A rainbow glow in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011 from the fallen Taylor Energy platform. Oil has been leaking since 2004.

The victory came last winter, when Taylor agreed with the government to pay more than $400 million for cleanup efforts. In June, the government ordered the company to be liquidated.

“This means that the Home Office can now move forward by finally plugging this longstanding oil spill,” said Chris Eaton, senior attorney at Earthjustice. The Taylor spill is another example of the disastrous impact of offshore drilling on the Gulf’s ecosystem, wildlife and communities.”

Sarthou of the healthy Gulf says everything is stopping the industry’s lifebloods – petrochemicals, oil exports – from re-rooting in the Gulf. “Industry is coming back and settling in the Gulf. You can get it back from the Atlantic, from Alaska, but it always comes back here. It sees the Gulf as its safe home base. As long as we don’t stop them here, they will continue.”

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