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The Daily Comet: ‘Spills all the time’

Robert Zullo, City Editor

On Saturday night, I was the editor in charge of putting together The Courier’s Sunday edition when the following email popped up on my screen at 7:49 p.m:

“The Coast Guard is responding to reports of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, Saturday. Coast Guard watchstanders at Sector New Orleans received the first notification at 9:34 a.m., reporting a 3-mile-long rainbow sheen in the Gulf of Mexico. Two more reports followed, the last one reporting a sheen that extended from 6 miles off the coast of Grand Isle to 100 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico. An overflight conducted by a Coast Guard MH-65C helicopter and crew was able to confirm there was a substance on the surface of the water, but was unable to complete the aerial survey due to being diverted for a search and rescue case.”

The news release went to say that another helicopter and a plane would be launched and a Coast Guard cutter was being sent to the apparent spill site.

Just hours from our deadline, I hauled a reporter back into the newsroom and put him to work. After a frenzied hour or so of phone calls, the Coast Guard told us it wouldn’t have any idea what the substance on the water was, how big it was or where it came from until morning.

The next news release on the slick came 24 hours after the first.

It goes without saying that it can be difficult to confirm reports far out at sea and that it’s important to put out accurate information. As it happened, the Coast Guard was dealing with two slicks: a leaky well off Grand Isle and another sheen believed to be cause by a massive amount of sediment disgorged by the Mississippi. But with the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster looming, it’s troubling that it took 36 hours for us to find out whether we were facing another major spill.

In February, a local fisherman called us to say he had motored through a large oil slick off East Timbalier Island while coming back from checking his crab traps. It turned out a few barrels of oil had leaked from the pipeline, but until I got a helpful Coast Guard commander on the phone, I was bounced from one Coast Guard office to another, my inquiries into the size and duration of the spill eliciting the vocal equivalent of shrugged shoulders.

“There are spills all the time down here,” one local Coast Guard officer I will not name told me.

That officer, of course, is right. There are spills all the time down here, as data from the National Response Center cited by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental group, in a Wednesday news release show.

“According to NRC data, 3,638 toxic releases were reported in Louisiana in 2009, including more than 50 million gallons of oil (including unknown oil and waste),” the group says.

Apart from the immense volume of crude leaked from the Macondo well last year, there was an abandoned wellhead hit by a barge in Barataria Bay in late July, spewing oil and natural gas into the water for about a week. A few days after the wellhead was hit by the barge, about 500 gallons of light crude oil spilled into Locust Bayou near the border of Terrebonne and St. Mary parishes when an oil-storage facility backed up into the waterway. In August, an oil-and-gas well blowout in the middle of verdant sugar-cane fields in Assumption forced residents from their homes and closed roads as oil spewed into the air for more than two weeks.

A story earlier this month in the New Orleans Gambit Weekly, titled, “Built to Spill,” took the state Department of Environmental Quality to task for its reluctance to impose fines for oil spills. It quoted local biologist Kerry St. Pé, a former DEQ enforcement agent who heads the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program in Thibodaux.

“From 1982 to 1997, (St. Pé) recommended fines in ‘hundreds and hundreds of cases’ as a DEQ inspector in southeastern Louisiana,” the story says. “ ‘But in terms of actual penalties that were levied based on my investigations, I can count them on one hand,’ ” he told the paper. “The main reason was ‘political pressure to the contrary,’ which he described as a sense that vigorous enforcement in the field was being discouraged in Baton Rouge.”

He added: “When oil companies see it’s cheaper to pollute than to prevent spills, it creates a culture of noncompliance.”

We all use oil and gas, and will for the foreseeable future. It’s an essential industry in Louisiana, in terms of the jobs and revenue it provides for state and local government. But it’s not too much to ask the industry to pay fines when it screws up even if the spill is “minor.” Those fines should be severe enough to discourage reckless and irresponsible behavior or cost cutting that can foul the waterways and land fishermen and farmers rely on for their livelihoods.

And it’s not too much to ask the state regulatory agencies to step up to the plate and protect the natural resources placed in their trust, rather than looking out for the best interests of a powerful industry.