Covering Up Oil Spills in the Gulf of Mexico

How the oil industry uses coffee filters and bottled water to doctor water samples, covering up oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.


| July/August 2013


What do we know about oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico? Not much, apparently. Though BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill made headlines in 2010, it recently came to light that both before and since Deepwater, there’s a lot of news we haven’t heard.

Reporting for Grist (May 7, 2013), Brentin Mock writes that a recent Department of Justice case revealed cover-ups are common practice in the offshore drilling industry. “Houston-based W&T Offshore pleaded guilty in January to not alerting federal authorities about its 2009 oil spill near the Louisiana coast,” writes Mock. “Company officials also admitted to doctoring water samples taken from spill areas." Former W&T employee Randy Corneaux blew the whistle on this case, suing the company and reporting its corrupt practices to the federal government. According to Corneaux, sample-alteration has been going on for decades. Even after Corneaux took legal action, however, the breadth of the problem wasn’t widely known.

New Orleans TV reporter David Hammer broke the news of Corneaux’s case after finding unsealed records from the Justice Department. Hammer started asking around and an oil worker from Mississippi, Jason Bourgeois, told him it’s routine to use coffee filters to get oil out of samples. It’s also not unheard of to pour bottled water into samples to make them seem cleaner. (Yes, it’s that easy.) And even when companies do report spills, they might doctor samples to downplay the damage.

Since the honor system’s not enough to keep the oil industry in check, you might think the government would step audits up a notch. In fact, after Deepwater the Interior Department said it would, creating the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). But since its inception in October, 2011, the Bureau has scheduled a grand total of one safety audit—which was called off with little explanation.

In February, BSEE did file a suit against ATP Oil & Gas Corporation, alleging discharges of oil and the chemical dispersant Cleartron ZB-103. But Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the nonprofit Gulf Restoration Network, told Hammer “[BSEE] is having their hands tied by the political environment that’s going on and we’re relying more and more, again, on industry self-audits.”

As for how much oil has been spilled into the Gulf of Mexico? The world may never know.
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