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'Act Of God' Blamed By Energy Company For Decade-Old Oil Spill


There is still oil coming to the surface of the Gulf of Mexico a decade after a spill there. Yesterday, for the first time, the company responsible spoke publicly about what's been done to contain the pollution which dates back to hurricane Ivan in 2004. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The briefing in Baton Rouge was part of a court-ordered settlement of a lawsuit brought by environmental groups in 2012. Larissa Liebmann is a staff attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance. She says they just wanted public disclosure.

LARISSA LIEBMANN: We had heard reports about this oil sheen, and once we started digging, there was - it was almost impossible to get any information. Everything we tried to get from the government was said to be confidential, so we brought this case largely because we had no idea what was going on.

ELLIOTT: Taylor Energy President William Pecue opened the unusual session by declaring that an act of God created the ongoing oil leak about 10 miles off the Louisiana coast. Hurricane Ivan toppled a production platform and buried a cluster of 25 oil wells beneath a mudslide. Even though Taylor has spent $480 million to clean up the site, miles-long oil slicks persist. Now, the New Orleans-based company says there's not much more it can do, and there's no ecological impact. Experts report that the sheen seen near the site is coming from remnant oil that's trapped in the mud on the ocean floor, not from actively leaking wells. No recordings were permitted, and Pecue was unavailable for comment afterward. Taylor attorney Mike Beaty acknowledged the extent of the pollution remains a mystery.

MIKE BEATY: There is no one that has been able to come up with a number for what that oil would be or what oil remains in the soil right now.

ELLIOTT: An Associated Press investigation last year revealed the spill was likely 20 times worse than the company or government had publicly reported. Even so, this is no gusher like the BP well blowout in 2010. The Taylor site is estimated to be leaking of thousands of gallons of oil as opposed to millions of barrels. But, Beatty says, there's no sense of how long it could be a problem.

BEATY: As long as we've got oil down there, there will no doubt be hydrocarbon bubbles that will percolate through the sand and bring it to the surface.

RUSSELL HONORE: This is an act of man, and we need to figure out how we're going to fix it.

ELLIOTT: That's retired Army Gen. Russell Honore, leader of Louisiana's Green Army, which has been taking photographs of the oil on the surface of the Gulf.

HONORE: You see the oil sheen? You see the boat going across? And on any clear day, you can go see the same thing. How can somebody say this amount of oil has zero impact on the environment?

ELLIOTT: Honore tried to pose that question at the meeting, but was repeatedly informed that only written questions would be entertained. He walked out after a tense exchange with William Pecue. Environmentalists thanked the company after the meeting yesterday, but Larissa Liebmann with Waterkeeper Alliance remains unsatisfied.

LIEBMANN: Really, we would be satisfied if we saw the oil completely cleaned up, and the leaks stopped, and the federal government changing its program to stop things like this from happening again.

ELLIOTT: New federal oil and gas leases in the Gulf will be up for bidding in the spring. Debbie Elliot, NPR News, Baton Rouge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.