Recently, as I was flying across Barataria Bay on the way to the Shell oil company’s leak 90 miles off the coast of Louisiana, I spotted a separate leak in the water just on the Bay side of Grand Isle, Louisiana. Barataria Bay is important to the shrimping, fishing, and oyster industries while Grand Isle protects the Bay’s wetlands and estuaries. It is said that 95 percent of all Gulf marine life spends at least a portion of its existence in Louisiana bays and estuaries making this area critical for the entire Gulf region, much less the commercial fishermen and seafood restaurants across the state that depend on it.
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It is for these reasons and more that whenever I spot a leak like this I file a report with the National Response Center (NRC). The National Response Center is staffed 24 hours a day by United States Coast Guard officers and marine science technicians and is the point of contact for reporting hazardous and toxic releases including oil spills.
With this particular spill I decided to approach things a little differently. Instead of filing an NRC report, I decided to test the entirety of the (absurd) reporting system for oil leaks in the Gulf region. The way I see it, there are just a few possible scenarios:
1.) Shell’s oil actually did make landfall and came through one of the passes and entered Barataria Bay. This would contradict stated claims by Shell/USCG that no oil made landfall.
2.) There was another oil leak that was reported by a responsible party and an NRC report was filed by the responsible party.
3.) There was another oil leak that was not reported by a responsible party and no NRC report filed.
4.) The leak came from an abandoned or orphaned well.
5.) Natural Seep
After several inquiries with federal agencies and consultation with some allies, I’ve come up with what I think is the most likely scenario, and if true should be a great cause for concern to most people who care about the Gulf region.
Scenario 1 is not very likely as the winds and currents at the time sent the (purported) 88,000 gallons of Shell’s oil in a westward direction meaning that that oil would not have made it into Barataria Bay. Especially, not within the two days between Shell’s initial leak and the time I spotted this mystery sheen.
Scenario 2 can be ruled out because there were no NRC reports filed for this area at that time. According to my friends at Skytruth, the only NRC report filed in the vicinity was on May 8th by Swift Energy. The leak in question was discovered 6 days later on May 14th and the sheen from May 8th would have been carried away with the wind and current by then.
Scenario 4, while possible, is unlikely because of the size of the sheen and proximity to so many active wells and pipelines. However, even if it was the case the effect is the same: contamination of Barataria Bay’s sensitive habitat thanks to an irresponsible oil company.
Scenario 5 can be ruled out given the size and shape of the leak as well as the location.
Scenario 3 seems like the most likely scenario and would not be all that surprising given the industry’s abysmal record in the Gulf. If accurate, this scenario means that a company had a leak from a pipeline, well-head, platform, or storage tank and simply failed to report it to the NRC. This would be a blatant violation of federal law and speaks to the need for a Gulf of Mexico Regional Citizens’s Advisory Council (RCAC) that can act as an independent watchdog entity to make sure these types of incidents are documented, reported, and ultimately the responsible party held accountable.
Stay tuned for much more on the call for and dire need of a Gulf of Mexico RCAC.
For an interesting twist on Shell’s oil leak in the Gulf, be sure to check out this newly published update by WWLTV Investigative reporter, David Hammer, which includes comments by Vanishing Earth.
Jonathan Henderson is the Founding President of Vanishing Earth.