Covering Up Oil Spills in the Gulf of Mexico

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Photo Courtesy NASA Goddard
A recent Department of Justice case revealed cover-ups are common practice in the offshore drilling industry.

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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