NEW ORLEANS - It was something of an eye-opener when an oil company pleaded guilty to two environmental crimes in January.
Not because the pollution reported was anything on the scale of the BP spill, but because of the brazen cover-up involved.
The company, Houston-based W&T Offshore, admitted its workers had used coffee filters in October 2009 to clean oil and other minerals out of the water byproduct discharged overboard from their platform in the Ewing Banks 910 lease block, about 65 miles south of Port Fourchon.
They were filtering the oil out of the water samples that were sent into a lab and recorded with the federal government.
Meanwhile, the water they were dumping back into the Gulf on a constant basis stayed contaminated.
W&T also pleaded guilty to spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico in November 2009 and not reporting it to authorities, as required by law. The company agreed to pay $1 million in fines and community service for their crimes.
The case was closed. But that may have been only part of the story. Eyewitness News found the original complaint that alerted the federal authorities, and the allegations in it go beyond what’s contained in W&T’s plea agreement. In fact, according to the man who blew the whistle and others, the problem of cover-ups and out-and-out dumping is widespread and will continue to go essentially unchecked because too few offshore workers are willing to report violations.
“When you’re in the offshore industry if you want to get along, you better go along,” said Randy Comeaux of Lafayette, who was a contract employee assigned to W&T platforms in 2009. “And what happens offshore stays offshore. You break any one of those two rules, in one fashion or another, you will not be working offshore.”
Comeaux says he’s one of the few who doesn’t simply “go along,” and he’s paid the price. He said he’s been fired multiple times for reporting violations and can’t get a job offshore because of it.
That’s why environmentalists and members of Congress say federal whistleblower protections have to be strengthened to protect the people who are trying to protect the public from more pollution.
“Why not just sweep it overboard? Nobody’s ever gonna see it. I mean, most people are never out here,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, one of several environmental groups that began flying offshore to monitor rigs and platforms after the 2010 BP spill. “Until the monitoring consortium really started looking, we had no clue how much oil and how many oil slicks we were going to find -- how much oil we actually find every month.”
Comeaux said he first learned how to doctor water samples to trick the feds back in 1980. He admitted he filtered some of the samples himself before realizing how his actions were helping to pollute the Gulf of Mexico.
We also tracked down one of the workers Comeaux caught doctoring the water samples on W&T’s Ewing Banks 910 platform – Jason Bourgeois of Centreville, Miss. Bourgeois blamed his supervisors for teaching him the practice and encouraging it over the last nine years. He also said this kind of thing has been going on at W&T platforms for decades – and sometimes, the doctoring is even more blatant than a coffee filter.
“You get about a couple inches in the jug of your overboard water and the rest is basically Kentwood,” Bourgeois said. “You fill the rest of the jug with Kentwood water. Then it’s sent into a laboratory.”
When we asked why someone would use bottled water when they were already filtering the actual water that came out of the production equipment, Bourgeois said it would take hours to filter an entire water sample. He said a W&T foreman once told him that he sent the laboratory a sample that was all Kentwood, and it passed.
Bourgeois’ grandfather, M.J. Smith, said his late son, Mike Smith, worked for W&T more than 10 years ago and also doctored processed water samples. Smith said his son, who was Bourgeois’ uncle, would take water from his well during his time off and gather it to use during his next hitch offshore, to create cleaner samples.
W&T said in a statement that the “doctoring of water samples in 2009 is an isolated incident, something the contract workers on EW910 did on their own, violating W&T Offshore procedures and without the knowledge of their supervisors.”
But Bourgeois said he and others at W&T were pressured to clean the samples by their supervisors.
“We knew it wasn’t right,” he said. “But it was the fact of, do it this way or we’ll get somebody else that will.”
Specifically, Bourgeois blames his field foreman, Mike Lofton – who, incidentally, was also Bourgeois’ uncle’s boss at W&T. Lofton was stationed on a W&T headquarters platform about halfway back to shore from the Ewing Banks platform Bourgeois worked on. Bourgeois and Comeaux said Lofton knew about and condoned the water filtering.
Comeaux also said he reported at least three spills to Lofton in 2009 that went unreported to the authorities. Bourgeois said a huge amount of oil – as much as 500 barrels from an overfilled storage tank – shot out a flare boom in one of the incidents, and because of high winds and the grating on the platform decks, most of it ended up in the Gulf.
But W&T says the amount of oil spilled was nothing like what Bourgeois describes. In an email Bourgois sent to Lofton about two months after the spill, he reports that no sheen was visible in the dark right after the incident, which happened at 2 a.m. The email also said no spill was visible four hours later, when the sun came up and the water became visible.
But Bourgeois says he was forced by the company to write that statement to contradict an earlier one he had given.
Lofton declined to respond when we called him at his home in Picayune, Miss., and asked to interview him about the incidents.
But W&T disputes Comeaux and Bourgeois’ portrayal of events and stands by Lofton.
“Mike Lofton is a valued W&T Offshore employee,” W&T said in a statement. “The company acknowledges that Lofton should have reported the spill from the flare boom in November 2009, but W&T Offshore disputes that it was anything as large as Bourgeois claims. And Lofton was never told that there was a sheen visible on the water.”
Other spills alleged
Comeaux wasn’t on Ewing Banks 910 during the November spill. He said he watched from the headquarters platform while Lofton sent workers in helicopters to clean the spill.
Comeaux was present for the two other spills he reported to Lofton – one in March 2009 on W&T’s connected Ship Shoal 300A and Ship Shoal 315 platforms, and one in October 2009 on Ewing Banks 910. Bourgeois saw the October incident and says W&T supervisors pressured the workers to use a screw to plug the high-pressure leak, something Bourgeois says was too dangerous for him to participate in. It also didn’t work, and the platform had to be shut in.
Comeaux said that before they shut down operations, the hole got bigger and oil started spewing into the Gulf. He said he told the lead operator on Ewing Banks 910, David Cahanin, to report an oil spill, but, Comeaux said, Cahanin refused. Cahanin did not respond to our request for comment.
W&T says none of the oil from those two incidents made it into the water and would not have required Lofton or anyone else to report them to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Blowing the whistle
The reason we know about any of these issues is that Comeaux filed a federal lawsuit against W&T on behalf of the United States. The Department of Justice made sure his complaint was filed under seal.
In 2012, the case was unsealed when the Justice Department declined to join Comeaux’s lawsuit. But then the prosecutors turned around and used the information they gathered and convicted W&T of crimes. The Justice Department, through the local U.S. Attorney's Office, said Comeaux is free to continue to pursue his civil claims.
Comeaux says he lost his job because he exposed the violations, and the federal prosecutors did nothing to protect him.
He also said he deserves a share of the fines against W&T under a provision in federal law, but the Justice Department decided not to use that law to prosecute W&T. Comeaux said it’s a travesty that the U.S. government would leave him vulnerable like that. And others agree.
“They laid him out to dry just like they did me and the other two guys,” said Bourgeois, who says that he, Cahanin and Bryan Barfoot were promised protection by federal investigators if they told the truth, but are no longer working on W&T platforms because, he claims, they cooperated.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., tried to get Congress to update the offshore whistleblower protection law after the 2010 BP oil spill. The bill died in the Senate, and Republicans in the House tried to water down the original bill, Miller said.
“Now why shouldn’t they have the same protection as railroad workers have, as transport workers have, as nuclear workers have, as pipeline workers have?” Miller said in an impassioned speech from the House floor in 2010. “Because they all have a modern whistleblower statute. But those men and women who go out on those rigs today do not have any protection, more less a modern protection.”
And Sarthou said she isn’t surprised the feds didn’t go to bat for Comeaux.
“I don’t think the Justice Department sees itself as in the business of supporting whistleblowers,” she said. “I think they see themselves as in the business of hitting somebody who’s done something wrong but not spending the money to go to trial unless they absolutely have to.”
History of complaints
Comeaux is undoubtedly disgruntled. He writes a blog railing against W&T, oil companies in general and the federal government.
He says companies come up with excuses to fire employees who blow the whistle, usually stating that they don’t work well with their colleagues. And Bourgeois confirms that Comeaux was generally distrusted by his co-workers and perceived as a snitch.
He certainly has a history of filing complaints and may fancy himself as a compliance officer even though he was listed as an instrument and electrical technician. His whistleblowing crusade apparently continued as soon as he returned offshore in 2012 to work on the ATP Titan platform in Mississippi Canyon 941. Just a few months into the job, he reported to the Coast Guard that 1,200 barrels of methanol were “dumped” overboard in December.
He says he couldn’t talk more about the incident at this time, but claims he was immediately fired because he reported it.
His allegations against ATP are not unique. ATP filed for bankruptcy last year, shortly after being charged with federal crimes for using an unauthorized chemical to break down the oil in the water they were dumping overboard from the ATP Innovator, a huge floating platform in Mississippi Canyon 711. According to the federal criminal complaint, the canister of the cleanser was hidden from view and workers called it “soap” and “sheen buster.”
ATP did not respond to our requests for comment.
W&T, on the other hand, addressed all of our questions. It says it has taken steps since 2009 to improve their environmental compliance. Even Bourgeois says he saw real improvement in the reporting before he stopped working for W&T last year.
Some of those corrective actions were required as a part of the guilty plea, some were already under way. The company says it now requires its managers to report spills to the Coast Guard if there’s a chance that some spilled into the Gulf, rather than waiting for visual confirmation. It also said it’s been conducting surprise water sampling on its platforms and has found all in compliance except for one, where there had been an upset in the system just before the test.
But, Bourgeois points to photographs he took of a 2011 oil spill on the Ewing Banks 910 platform as evidence that the company hasn’t totally learned its lesson.
That spill was reported to the Coast Guard as a “capful” of oil discharged into the water, which Bourgeois says is ridiculous given the photographs. But the pictures of the oil-soaked equipment don’t necessarily prove that more than a capful of oil made it into the Gulf.
It’s hard to tell how widespread these issues are. Sarthou said that even if it’s just a handful of bad actors doctoring water samples and keeping spills quiet, if they’ve been doing it consistently for 30 years, the volume of pollution could be devastating. She said we can’t rely on the massive Gulf to dilute the effects of the oil if the discharges have been that numerous and constant.
Comeaux agrees. A child of Acadiana who spent his whole life on the water and eating Gulf seafood, he is now afraid to touch it.
Whether he is a malcontent or not and whether he’s justified in seeking whistleblower reward money or not, there is little doubt he is passionate about protecting the Gulf waters.
He begins to cry when describing how pervasive he believes the unreported pollution is.
“This type of activity occurs under the cover of the night through a process of corrupting the morals of the people who work out there,” he said. “It’s not acceptable behavior for our industry. It’s not acceptable behavior for our world.
“Eventually people are gonna suffer from this. You can’t keep polluting something and expect everything to be OK. Sooner or later somebody is gonna get sick from this. Sooner or later somebody’s gonna die from this. Sooner or later, the Gulf is gonna die from this.”