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Marshall reports: "Jonathan Henderson of New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network is flying Louisiana's coast looking for oil. As usual, he's found some."

A pipeline in a coastal marsh in Louisiana. (photo: NPR/Gulf Restoration Network)
A pipeline in a coastal marsh in Louisiana. (photo: NPR/Gulf Restoration Network)

Telltale Rainbow Sheens Show Thousands of Spills Across the Gulf

By Bob Marshall, National Public Radio

20 April 14


onathan Henderson of New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network is flying Louisiana's coast looking for oil. As usual, he's found some.

"Just in the last year, I have filed 50 reports for different leaks and spills unrelated to the BP disaster."
- Jonathan Henderson, Gulf Restoration Network

"I just noticed something out of the corner of my eye that looks like a sheen that had some form to it," he says. "We're going to go take a closer look and see if there's a rainbow sheen."

It's a target-rich environment for Henderson, because more than 54,000 wells were planted in and off this coast — part of the 300,000 wells in the state. They're connected by thousands of miles of pipelines, all vulnerable to leaks.

And leak they do. Louisiana admits to at least 300,000 barrels spilled on its land and in its waters each year, 20 percent of the nation's total. But those figures come from a system that depends largely on oil companies to self-report.

The problem went mostly unnoticed until the largest spill in U.S. history back on April 20, 2010, drew environmental groups to the coast looking for BP's oil.

"I started noticing, towards the end of 2010, other leaks that were unrelated to the BP disaster," Henderson says. "I would find wellheads that were leaking or platforms that were leaking. Just in the last year, I have filed 50 reports for different leaks and spills unrelated to the BP disaster."

Under the Clean Water Act, when a company spills any amount of oil in the water, it must file a report with the National Response Center run by the Coast Guard. But when Henderson checked, he found many of those smaller spills were not making that list.

So environmental groups formed the Gulf Monitoring Consortium to get a better count on spills. The partnership is a blend groups of complementary skills.

Gulf Restoration Network, for example, has personnel who can spot spills from the air and file complete reports.

SouthWings, a group of volunteer pilots, helps get those spotters aloft.

A third member, the West Virginia-based tech group SkyTruth, finds the spills on satellite photographs, then applies a formula used by spill experts to translate the size of the oil sheen into gallons of oil in the water.

SkyTruth spokesman David Manthos says its estimates typically are much higher than what's been reported.

"We found that the spill was usually 10 times larger than had been reported, and that was averaged out across a lot," he says. "In some, the mismatch was much larger than that."

The sheer size of the industry here means there's seldom a quiet day for the consortium. In an average year, the NRC receives 10,000 reports of spills in the Gulf.

It's a number that surprised even SouthWings Gulf Program Director Meredith Dowling, a veteran of monitoring efforts.

"I can't think of a single instance where our volunteers have flown offshore and not found spills," Dowling says. "This was something that was really amazing to me when I first moved here ... that is was a continuous, absolute failure of business-as-usual practices."

The partners hope their work educates the public to the scope of the problem, and perhaps gets governments to end the voluntary compliance model and turn to aggressive enforcement by outside groups. your social media marketing partner


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+11 # hwmcadoo 2014-04-20 10:19
The corporate America we are facing. Living in a toxic dump while the elite eat caviar behind mansion walls.
+14 # Nominae 2014-04-20 12:28
"Self-reporting ", and "voluntary compliance" are simply code words proving that Corporations control the Government, not the other way around.

They are a polite way of saying "Butt Out - We do what we want to do, and there is nothing, and no one, than can stop us".
+14 # Regina 2014-04-20 12:42
Only the most gullible naifs are expecting honesty from BP. BP can't pay the freight for Gulf cleanup because they're paying out billions for their lying TV ads. And of course they made those billions by not paying for safety methods and devices in the first place. And nothing has changed as a result of the Gulf garbage -- no lessons learned, no methods changed, no attitudes revised, etc.
+5 # ahollman 2014-04-20 19:18
The US government does not actively look for oil spills, but depends on oil companies to report them. The feds should have banned BP from bidding on Gulf oil leases for at least 10 years. The fox is guarding the chicken coop.

An effective spill detection regime would have 1) federal agents searching for spills at least as aggressively as they search for illegal immigrants crossing the Rio Grande, 2) highly visible signs on every pipeline or other piece of infrastructure identifying its owner and/or environmentally responsible party, 3) periodic "fingerprinting " of all oil sources, against which to quickly identify spilled oil, 4) a fine structure which incentivizes oil companies to self-report by making the fines far higher if the feds detect a leak before before the company reports it, 5) funding for enforcement and cleanup via a per-barrel extraction fee, with higher fees for frequent spillers, 6) easy public digital access to a database of all spill reports, 7) rapid federal cleanup of any spills, 8) rapid assignment of cost to a responsible party (let the oil companies set up their own consortium to absorb responsibility in cases where there's doubt), and 9) equally rapid repayment by the responsible party for the cost of cleanup.

The bigger picture remains: Lousiana pols are even more in bed with big oil than are the feds; big oil's canals have destroyed Louisiana's coastline and the flood protection it provides, and we all use way too much oil.
+6 # mgwmgw 2014-04-21 00:00
Here is a radical idea, if oil companies are required to report all spills, and someone catches them not doing so, they should pay a fine. The more leaks that are found, cumulatively, the higher the fine should be. They should also pay damages to anyone who is harmed by their leak.
0 # geonomist 2014-05-10 14:13
Polluters know what will stop them even if we don't and that's repeal of free, government-gran ted liability limits. Get rid of that freebie, make management buy insurance plus put their own butts on the line, and you'd see them become good neighbors. Of course, if oil companies had to pay the "rental" value of oil rather than keep it -- close to what Norway does -- and pay to the community, that would show who is really boss and help keep business in line. Further, you could use the raised revenue to cut counter-product ive taxes, such as those on wages, sales, and homes. Most voters would love that, and thus love this system of stewardship all the more. More at

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