The devastation to lives and homes caused by Hurricane Katrina masked a massive crude oil spill that the hurricane caused by damaging rigs and storage tanks in the Gulf of Mexico. The damage was made worse a few weeks later when Hurricane Rita struck the area. The federal regulators that oversee oil and gas operation in the Gulf estimated that more than 400 pipelines and 100 drilling platforms were damaged, leading to 10.8 million gallons of crude oil spilling into the Gulf—the same amount as the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Now, 14 years later, not one assessment of the damage to natural resources has been carried out. There is no plan to help restore impacted ecosystems. And not one of the 140 responsible parties has faced a fine or even a citation, according to an exclusive investigation by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.
Instead of having to pay fines, the companies whose oil spilled into the water have actually been reimbursed $19 million from a federal trust for the oil they lost, claiming that the spills and damage were caused by an “unforeseeable act of God,” according to the review by ProPublica and its partners.
The Act of God defense holds a lot of weight in Louisiana. Adam Babich, former director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, told the journalists at ProPublica and its partners that while the act of God defense does not usually release oil companies from liability, it does weaken arguments to hold them accountable.
“We don’t normally penalize [companies] for act of God events,” said Greg Langley of the Department of Environmental Quality to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.”We just get right to remediation.”
The full scale of the damage may never be fully understood without a comprehensive review and assessment. Even a tiny amount of spilled crude oil has a devastating impact and damages coastline that protects inland areas from storms.
The oil that seeps into the marshes affects worms and snails, which are eaten by birds and fish. Marsh plants begin to die, which allows saltwater to eat away at the coastline. That allows the next storm to push further inland, according to Darryl Malek-Wiley, an organizer with the Sierra Club, who spoke to the ProPublica investigation.
“I think it’s an outrage that they haven’t made any progress,” Malek-Wiley said to ProPublica. “Here we are 14 years later and they haven’t done anything. A year after Katrina, things had settled down significantly. I think the oil response team should have been moving forward with environmental damage claims.”
The inaction seems to violate the Oil Pollution Act, passed by Congress in response to the Valdez oil spill. That law mandates federal and state agencies to work with the companies to assess damage to natural resources. After a comprehensive report is completed on the value of the affected plants, soil, water and wildlife, the responsible parties must foot the bill for restoration efforts, according to the ProPublica review.
“It’s pretty clear what the value of money is in a place like Louisiana, where we have these restoration needs,” Steve Cochran, associate vice president for coastal resilience at the Environmental Defense Fund, to the investigative journalists at ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. “Every dollar that’s not collected [in fines] is a dollar that we can’t spend on this work.”
By not completing an environmental assessment, Louisiana is missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental remediation money. Cochran said that if the oil companies responsible for the rigs and storage tanks paid for restoration at the same rate that BP paid for the Deepwater Horizon spill, then Louisiana would have $700 million more in its restoration budget, according to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.
“It’s a lot of work that’s desperately needed but that is only possible because that [BP settlement] money became available,” Cochran said to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.
Since Hurricane Katrina swept over the Gulf waters with category 5 strength, nothing has been done to protect against storm-related oil spills or the damage to the environment, according to the investigation.
Scientists predict that future storms, which will increase in intensity due to the climate crisis, will exacerbate environmental damage.
“In the Gulf, storms are predicted to be less frequent but more intense when they do come,” said Sunshine Van Bael, an ecologist at Tulane University who evaluated damage to marsh ecosystems from the BP oil spill, to to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. “One thing that storms do is, if oil has been buried underneath the marsh because it wasn’t rehabilitated, a storm could come along and whip that back up to the surface. So, the aftereffects of the oil spills might be greater [with climate change] since the storms are predicted to be more intense.”