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14-Year Oil Spill In The Gulf Of Mexico Could Go On For Decades

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

How long does it take to stop an oil spill? In the Gulf of Mexico, the nation's longest offshore oil spill has been leaking for more than 14 years. There is still no solution in sight. Now the Coast Guard is stepping in to try to clean it up. Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO and NPR's Energy and Environment team, reports.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: On a windy spring day, I set out on a tiny fishing boat with the captain and a scientist. Giant waves toss us around.

IAN MACDONALD: We're about 10 miles off the South Pass of the Mississippi River Delta. And the crew is standing up well, I think...

WENDLAND: (Laughter).

MACDONALD: ...To the challenging ocean conditions.

WENDLAND: I'm trying not to throw up, but Ian MacDonald is unfazed by the 6-foot waves. He's a scientist at Florida State University, where he studies oil spills.

The fumes hit us first. The smell is overwhelming. And then we see it. It's not a black, sticky slick but a glossy layer that stretches for miles.

MACDONALD: Here is some coming up. See how it's all rainbow sheen there? So that's oil.

WENDLAND: Way back in 2004, powerful Hurricane Ivan toppled an oil rig into the Gulf. It was owned by Taylor Energy, a New Orleans-based company, which managed to plug some of the 25 broken pipes. But the leak didn't stop.

Jonathan Henderson runs an environmental nonprofit called Vanishing Earth and worries about the impact on marine life.

JONATHAN HENDERSON: Everything that lives and breathes in the Gulf of Mexico travels back and forth through that zone - fish and the sea birds and the sea turtles and the dolphins.

WENDLAND: The government is studying this, but it's hard. They can't even figure out exactly how much is leaking. Neither can the company. Henderson's been trying to monitor it himself, doing regular flyovers and reporting what he sees.

HENDERSON: I don't see why, if it's going to continue to leak, that they can't recover some of this oil. I mean, if we can put a man on the moon, we can figure out how to, like, grab oil that's coming up from the seafloor and 400 feet of water.

WENDLAND: The Department of the Interior and the Coast Guard have been working with the company to try to stop the leak for years, but it's a major engineering challenge. The wells were buried under hundreds of feet of mud in an underwater mudslide, which are common in this area where the murky Mississippi dumps into the Gulf. Ed Richards is a law professor at Louisiana State University.

ED RICHARDS: This is a well-known high-risk area. You have a whole huge amount of unconsolidated sediment coming out of the river basically piling up.

WENDLAND: He says the situation raises questions.

RICHARDS: Should they have been there? Should they have built the rig the way they built it? Should it have been permitted that way?

WENDLAND: And Taylor Energy's not the only company that built there. There are many rigs in the area. The company has spent about $500 million to try and stop the spill, and it's paying for pilots to fly over and monitor it. The companies reported less than a barrel of oil a day on the surface. But scientist MacDonald calculates that more than a hundred barrels a day are spilling into the Gulf. He says the whole situation should serve as a warning to regulators as they attempt to expand oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic, where underwater canyons pose a threat.

MACDONALD: So the idea that we would be building in deep water and making pipelines going back to land in an area that's susceptible to those kinds of accidents is something that we should take into account as we do our planning.

WENDLAND: And do you think we are?

MACDONALD: No.

WENDLAND: The Trump administration has rolled back offshore safety rules even as it works to open up more areas to drilling.

Back out in the Gulf, a giant ship looms in the distance - contractors hired by the Coast Guard to drop a giant metal dome over the wells and collect the oil. Taylor Energy says this could just make it worse, so it's suing the Coast Guard. Neither the government nor the company agreed to go on record, saying litigation is ongoing. MacDonald remains hopeful.

MACDONALD: I'm really glad to be out here and being able to see this operation because it's been a long time coming, and there's a lot riding on it.

WENDLAND: But in the end, he says, it might be that no one is able to stop the oil from bubbling up into the Gulf. If that's the case, according to government estimates, the leak could go on for a hundred more years.

For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland, in Port Eads, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.