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SOURCE: Pro Publica

DATE: December 27, 2019

SNIP: In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, while stranded New Orleanians flagged down helicopters from rooftops and hospitals desperately triaged patients, crude oil silently gushed from damaged drilling rigs and storage tanks.

Given the human misery set into motion by Katrina, the harm these spills caused to the environment drew little attention. But it was substantial.

Nine days after the storm, oil could still be seen leaking from toppled storage tanks, broken pipelines and sunken boats between New Orleans and the Mississippi River’s mouth. And then Hurricane Rita hit. Oil let loose by Katrina was pushed farther inland by Rita three weeks later, and debris from the first storm caused damage to oil tankers rocked by the second.

All told, the federal agency overseeing oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico reported that more than 400 pipelines and 100 drilling platforms were damaged. The U.S. Coast Guard, the first responder for oil spills, received 540 separate reports of spills into Louisiana waters. Officials estimated that, taken together, those leaks released the same amount of oil that the highly publicized 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound — about 10.8 million gallons.

The Oil Pollution Act, passed by Congress in response to the Valdez incident, requires that federal and state agencies work with the companies that spilled the oil to conduct a preliminary assessment of damage to natural resources. Once a comprehensive report is finalized on the value of the affected plants, soil, water and wildlife, those so-called responsible parties must pay for restoration efforts.

Fourteen years later, not one assessment of the damage to natural resources after the two 2005 hurricanes has been completed. None of the 140 parties thought to be responsible for the spills has been fined or cited for environmental violations. And no restoration plans have been developed for the impacted ecosystems, fish, birds or water quality, a review by The Times-Picayune and The Advocate and ProPublica has found.

The extent of the damage to the environment may never be known.

Over the same period, some of the very same companies responsible for spills have gotten reimbursements totaling $19 million from a federal trust fund that allows private parties to submit claims for expenses incurred cleaning up their spilled oil. In order to get their money back, companies have to file papers saying how much oil they spilled, why it spilled and what they did to capture it. They often describe the spill as the result of an “unforeseeable act of God.”

Since the 2005 spills, little action has been taken to help prevent something similar from recurring. Neither Patrick Courreges, communications director at the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, nor Greg Langley, the press secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, were aware of any new regulations since Katrina to protect against storm-related oil spills or the associated damage to the environment.

While hurricanes gain speed due to the effects of climate change, the push for oil leasing in the Gulf of Mexico shows no sign of slowing down. In 2014, the Obama administration opened up 40 million new acres in the Gulf for oil and gas development. Four years later, the Trump administration announced plans to open up most of the rest, in what would be the largest expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. history. Many of these 76 million acres are to be offered at reduced royalty rates to encourage additional near-shore drilling in Louisiana waters.

Meanwhile, scientists expect that future storms will exacerbate oil damage to the environment.