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How big is the 15-year-old oil spill near the Mouth of the Mississippi? It depends on who you ask

Eyewitness News goes on a plane trip with Taylor, its contractor to see the extent of the oil spill.

NEW ORLEANS — Taylor Energy is defending its efforts over nearly 15 years to stop an interminable oil leak off the tip of Louisiana. 

Its CEO challenged new estimates of the size of the spill and questioned the U.S. government’s recent moves to try to contain the slick.

The New Orleans-based company’s president, Will Pecue, sat down for an exclusive interview with WWL-TV and invited the station on a plane trip to the site of the oil leak 12 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The leak began in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan toppled one of Taylor’s oil production platforms and caused a mudslide on the seafloor that buried a mishmash of 25 oil and gas wells.

Pecue said the leak hasn’t changed, but the government’s assessment of it has, and he questions why. For over a decade, both Taylor and the government were treating it as a minor discharge of oil that should be monitored but mostly left alone.

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Taylor’s scientific experts determined only about 10 gallons of oil were leaking to the surface each day. A task force of government and industry experts concluded it was not enough oil to collect with skimmer boats at the surface, and the conditions on the seafloor and in the wells below – all lying under a 100-foot-deep mud pit -- were too precarious to disturb with any more drilling or dredging.

 But everything changed when the U.S. Interior Department filed an expert report in federal court in September.

That report by environmental consultant Oscar Garcia used satellite and image analysis to raise the spill estimate 1,000 times, from 10 gallons a day to a range of 10,000 to 30,000 gallons a day.

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“For 15 years, Taylor Energy and the federal government agencies worked side-by-side, applying the best science and world-renowned experts to truly identify and characterize what's going on at our site. That changed in September,” Pecue said, referring to the Garcia report. “That flawed piece of work gave criticism to the Coast Guard for not acting. I think Coast Guard in a knee-jerk reaction said, 'We need to do something; do something now.'"

In November, the Coast Guard seized partial control of the response from Taylor, hiring its own contractor to build and deploy equipment 450 feet below the surface of the Gulf to try to collect the oil – all at Taylor’s expense.

RELATED: Coast Guard takes over response to 14-year-old Taylor Energy oil leak

Taylor’s cooperative relationship with the federal government began eroding in 2016, when Taylor sued and the U.S. Interior Department to get back $435 million sitting in a trust account for plugging and abandoning the broken wells.

Pecue insists the new fight with the Coast Guard over the true amount of oil leaking at the site – known as Mississippi Canyon-20 -- has nothing to do with that legal battle over the trust because the trust money was never intended for spill containment. But the Garcia report was filed by the Interior Department in Taylor’s lawsuit to dissolve the trust.

Pecue said the company is using a separate pot of money to monitor the site and try different ways to contain the leak. He said Taylor is willing to do what’s appropriate to stop the leak, but warns the more aggressive containment actions ordered by the Coast Guard in November risk more environmental damage.

Taylor sold off all of its oil and gas operations in 2008 and now exists solely to address the persistent leak.

Taylor is responsible for cleaning, containing and plugging the leak, but the company said it was caused by an “act of God” and it’s not in violation of any pollution laws. The firm has never been fined, but Pecue said Taylor has spent $480 million so far on plugging wells, clearing some of the damage and monitoring the leak.

In collaboration with the Coast Guard, Taylor managed to plug nine of the 25 wells – the ones deemed most likely to flow and discharge more oil into the Gulf -- and concluded the remaining 16 wells were dry.

Taylor believes large quantities of oil escaped from its wells before they could be plugged, got trapped under the mudslide and remnants of that oil are seeping up to the surface at the very slow rate of about 10 gallons per day. For the first decade after the platform fell, the federal government accepted Taylor’s estimate.

But Garcia’s survey has totally changed how the leak is perceived, both by the public and by the government.

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Garcia’s new spill estimates were the focus of a front-page article in the Washington Post in October, which said the total amount that’s leaked over more than 14 years could “soon surpass” the amount spilled by BP over three months in 2010, the worst spill in U.S. history.

That triggered a slew of news stories and commentaries across the country, some claiming Taylor had tried to hide the true size of its leak. Pecue acknowledged the leak didn’t get much attention initially, but said his company reported it immediately to the Coast Guard and began recording leak estimates with twice-daily flyovers in 2008.

Those flyovers were reduced to once a day and then to twice a week as they concluded not much was changing and little could be done to stop it.

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Now that the narrative has changed, Taylor invited WWL-TV to join its contractor, Gil Berkins, on a seaplane flight in January to assess the amount of oil on the water’s surface. Berkins used a method, outlined by the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to estimate the amount of oil in the slick based on the color of the sheen.

The darker the sheen appears, the thicker the oil is. During the flyover with WWL-TV, a mostly metallic sheen was visible covering about 10 percent of an area about 0.7 miles wide by 1-mile long. There was a 1-to-3-foot chop. Using the NOAA calculator, Berkins estimated about 10.2 gallons of oil was floating on the water’s surface at that moment.

Berkins said the method is limited to measuring the oil at a single moment in time, making it difficult to determine how long that oil had been on the surface, how much had evaporated or dispersed and how quickly the oil is leaking.

Berkins said 10 gallons was typical of what he’s seen during flyovers at least once a week for the last several years. Taylor also deployed skimmer boats from Clean Gulf Associates, a cleanup contractor used by many oil companies, to check for any recoverable oil. They didn’t find any.

Taylor says it has only deployed Clean Gulf Associates nine times to remove surface oil from the site and initially the company told WWL-TV that CGA's crews had only managed to collect a grand total of 10 gallons in 15 years. On Feb. 13, Taylor Energy said it made a mistake and it actually recovered 100 gallons of sludge from the site on April 3, 2015, and never recovered any other dark oil.

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But others who have recorded their observations at the site say there’s been a lot more recoverable oil than that.

Garcia’s report uses spectrum analysis from satellite images that traced slicks at the Taylor site extending for miles. There are also photos in his report, taken from a boat in the middle of the slick, showing thick brown or black oil.

Environmental watchdog Jonathan Henderson, who has flown out to the site several times and provided overflight photos and video to WWL-TV in the past, said he always sees a “miles-long rainbow sheen” that often contains patches of dark oil.

Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Lauren Jorgensen told WWL-TV that calculations from overflights are imprecise and subject to too many environmental variables. “For example, seas of 1-3 feet will tend to break up the sheen much more quickly than if seas are calm,” she said.

The photos in Garcia’s report show thicker oil floating on much calmer water.

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Pecue questioned Garcia’s methodology. He said satellite image analysis is an unreliable way to calculate the volume of a spill.

“Rather than looking from a satellite hundreds of miles above the water’s surface, (Clean Gulf Associates is) looking over the handrail from a vessel at about 2 feet. And their immediate and their decisive determination was, this is a thin sheen which is not recoverable with skimmers,” Pecue said.

But perceptions of the Taylor leak have been changing for several years now. In 2010, while the world was watching a BP well gushing 1.5 million gallons of oil into the Gulf every day for three months, The Mobile Press-Register was the first to report about the miles-long slick coming from the abandoned Taylor site about 40 miles closer to shore. At the time, the U.S. Interior Department said the Taylor site was only leaking about 14 gallons per day.

But in 2015, The Associated Press reported that new analyses of the oil thickness on the surface of the Gulf suggested much larger amounts of oil were coming to the surface.

The Coast Guard’s Jorgensen told WWL-TV that five different scientific analyses from 2012 to 2018 led the agency to believe one or more of Taylor’s wells were still actively leaking oil. She said those reports, in addition to the Garcia findings, “provided the necessary evidence to the (Coast Guard’s federal on-scene coordinator) that the on-going spill amounts from the (Taylor Energy) site far exceeded those of which were originally reported from aerial observation. These reports also point to potential maximum discharge amounts in the hundreds of barrels (more than 10,000 gallons) per day.”

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On Oct. 23, a day after the Washington Post reported on the Garcia report, the Coast Guard ordered Taylor to build and deploy a new containment system. Taylor cried foul, calling Garcia’s findings “fundamentally flawed” and “grossly exaggerated.”

On Oct. 24, Taylor’s Pecue sent Coast Guard Capt. Kristi Luttrell, the Federal On-Scene Coordinator, a letter calling the Garcia report “inaccurate, false and inconclusive” and questioning the Coast Guard’s sudden change in interpretation of the older site surveys. For example, Pecue asked how a 2012 survey could be cited as proof of a larger leak when the NOAA scientist who conducted it reported in an email to the Interior Department that the oil plume his team found was “consistent with previous observations of naturally occurring gaseous seeps.”

Taylor missed a Coast Guard deadline in November to select a contractor to build a device called a containment dome, a large, metal, three-sided box that can be lowered in the water to collect the oil and funnel it away for proper disposal. The Coast Guard hired Plaquemines Parish-based Couvillion Group to construct a containment dome that could collect around 10,000 gallons of oil per day.

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Taylor had smaller domes built and deployed a decade ago, but the loose, oatmeal-like sediments from the mudslide clogged them and prevented any collection of leaking oil. The company had three more domes built in 2012, but they’re still sitting on a dock, unused. Pecue said Taylor was waiting on the government to give it a specific location to deploy the domes. The Coast Guard’s Jorgensen told WWL-TV that Taylor could have been more proactive.

“Once the source of the plumes was located, Taylor Energy … could have suggested deploying one of its domes, but did not despite requests to propose response plans,” she said.

Pecue said he’s worried the new Coast Guard plan could disturb the sediments trapping the oil, causing more harm than good. Taylor actually sued the contractor, Couvillion, in December to try to keep it from entering its site.

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“You're going to stir it up, you're going to release that oil into the water column, and you're going to create a more adverse component to the water column, to the environment,” Pecue said.

But Jorgensen said the Coast Guard is confident the new containment plans are environmentally safe and carefully considered. She said plans are progressing on schedule and the device should be deployed “in the near future.”

Meanwhile, this week President Donald Trump appointed a former Taylor Energy attorney, David Bernhardt, to become the new Interior Secretary. Bernhardt was on Taylor's legal team in 2016 when the company sued the Interior Department in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, seeking the $435 million back from the trust. But Taylor says Bernhardt was not involved in that litigation and hasn't been in contact with Taylor since joining the Trump administration in 2017.

Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has already called for Bernhardt to recuse himself from any issues involving former clients, such as Taylor.

NOTE: This story initially reported that Taylor Energy claimed to have collected only 10 gallons of recoverable oil over the whole history of the leak. That is what the company claimed, but a Taylor representative later informed WWL-TV that the company had stated the wrong amount, and the total collected was actually 100 gallons. The initial story also erroneously referred to Will Pecue as Taylor's CEO. Pecue is actually the company's president. Phyllis Taylor is the CEO.

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