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Enviros Alarmed at 7-Year Oil Leak in the Gulf

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - A broken underwater wellhead has been dumping 4,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico for seven years, and neither its owner nor state or federal governments have informed the public or seriously tried to stop it, six environmental groups claim in Federal Court.

Lead plaintiff Apalachicola Riverkeeper sued Taylor Energy Co., acting with its co-plaintiffs as the Waterkeeper Alliance.

"This lawsuit is necessary because of Taylor's slow pace in stopping the flow of oil from its well(s) into the Gulf," the complaint states." To the best of the Waterkeepers' knowledge, this contamination continues after seven (7) years of flow.

"This lawsuit is also needed because of the secrecy surrounding Taylor's response to a multi-year spill that threatens public resources. Such secrecy is inconsistent with national policy that 'Public participation in the ... enforcement of any [Clean Water Act or RCRA] regulation ... shall be provided for, encouraged, and assisted." (Brackets in complaint.)

The complaint continues: "The Waterkeepers understand that an underground mudslide began this spill on about September 15, 2004, by destroying a Taylor drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico (Block 20 of the Mississippi Canyon) and burying up to 28 wells. But without details about Taylor's response to this crisis, it is impossible for members of the public to assess the risk that similar events will cause additional multi-year spills, including spills from higher-pressure wells in deeper water. Because such spills may damage the Gulf's eco-system on a scale comparable to or exceeding the BP spill, it is essential that the public learn from the more than 7-year Taylor response. Further, without understanding why it is taking more than 7 years to stop the Taylor spill, it is impossible to assess the reasonableness of Taylor's response."

The waterkeepers say that Taylor, the U.S. EPA and the Department of Interior have been secretive about what, if anything, has been done to stop the leak.

The plaintiffs say Taylor has 28 wells associated with an oil platform 11 miles off the coast of Louisiana, and that at least one of the wells has been leaking a significant amount of oil since September, 2004.

They say the leaked oil is sufficient to produce "a visible sheen" on the Gulf of Mexico.

The complaint states: "During the over 7 years the well(s) has been leaking, estimates of daily spill volumes range up to more than 4,000 gallons of oil.

"At all times since the Taylor well(s) began leaking, Taylor has been its sole owner and operator.

"Taylor has failed to provide the public with information regarding the pace and extent of the oil leaks and Taylor's efforts to control the leaks. Indeed, Taylor has failed to specify: (1) How many of the wells at the Mississippi Canyon Block 20 (MC 20) site are still leaking oil, (2) How many of the wells at the MC 20 site have been completely decommissioned, (3) When the remaining wells at the MC 20 site will be completely decommissioned, (4) When the oil leak will be completely stopped, and (5) How much sub-surface oil from the MC 20 site is currently in the Gulf.

"This lawsuit is not precluded by governmental action. Specifically, neither EPA nor a state has commenced or is diligently prosecuting an action to require compliance with the standards or abate the risk of endangerment at issue in this lawsuit.

Further, neither EPA nor a state is actually engaged in a removal action under authority of 42 U.S.C. § 9604, to abate the risk of endangerment at issue. In addition, neither EPA nor a state has incurred costs to initiate a remedial investigation and feasibility study under 42 U.S.C. § 9604 or is diligently proceeding with a remedial action under 42 U.S.C. § 9601, et seq., to abate the risk of endangerment at issue. Finally, no responsible party is diligently conducting a removal action, remedial investigation and feasibility study or proceeding with a remedial action pursuant to a judicial or administrative order obtained by EPA under 42 U.S.C. § 9606, or RCRA, 42 U.S.C. § 6973, to abate the risk of endangerment at issue.

"The U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Coast Guard have issued orders to Taylor with regard to the Taylor oil spill. The details of Taylor's responsive activities, however, are not available to the plaintiffs. Taylor's responsive activities have failed to sop the violations or the disk of endangerment at issue."

The Clean Water Act prohibits discharge of any pollutant except by permit, and Taylor does not have a permit to let oil leak from its well, according to the complaint

The plaintiffs seek civil penalties of up to $37,500 a day for Clean Water Act violations, until all leaking wells have been shut down.

The plaintiffs are Apalachicola Riverkeeper, Atchafalaya Basin Keeper, Galveston Baykeeper, Louisiana Bayoukeeper, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Paul Orr as the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

They are represented by Machelle Lee Hall, with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.

A leak of 4,000 gallons a day for seven years would come to 10.2 million gallons of oil, or 243,333 barrels.

By comparison, the catastrophic BP oil spill is estimated to have dumped about 4.9 million barrels, or 205 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

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