Judge: Gulf Oil Leak Details Can’t Be Kept Secret
A federal magistrate judge Wednesday rejected a company’s bid to preserve the confidentiality of numerous emails and reports about its failed efforts to halt a decade-old Gulf of Mexico oil leak.
The documents could be evidence in a lawsuit that a coalition of environmental groups, led by the New York City-based Waterkeeper Alliance, filed against Taylor Energy Co. The New Orleans-based company owned an oil platform that toppled during Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
An Associated Press investigation recently revealed evidence that the leak at the site of the toppled platform is worse than Taylor or government regulators had publicly reported.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Wells Roby rejected a series of arguments by Taylor lawyers who said the documents contain commercially valuable trade secrets and private information – including research on efforts to stop leaks and geological information about the site.
Wells Roby didn’t immediately issue a formal ruling. Once she does, Taylor can ask a district judge to review it before any documents are publicly released.
The AP has filed a public records request for some of the same confidential records.
Attorneys for the environmentalists have access to the information in question. But keeping it confidential would essentially tie attorneys’ hands, restricting what they could say about the records or how they could use them at a trial set for later this year.
“It’s just not practical to hold this trial in secret,” said Adam Babich, a Tulane Environmental Law Clinic lawyer representing the Waterkeeper Alliance.
Documents that the alliance seeks to make public include email correspondence involving the Coast Guard, reports prepared for the government regulators overseeing the leak response efforts, expert reports by scientists and engineers and documents used by those experts in forming opinions about the spill.
The Waterkeeper Alliance sued in 2012. The group said Taylor turned over more than 15,000 pages of documents and initially stamped all but four pages as confidential under a protective order. Roby said she may order changes to the protective order, saying it is overly broad.
The lawsuit seeks penalties against Taylor for violations of the Clean Water Act in connection with the ongoing spill.
A Taylor spokesman declined immediate comment after Wednesday’s hearing. Phyllis Taylor, the company’s chairman and CEO, declined to be interviewed Wednesday after testifying at a legislative hearing in Baton Rouge on an unrelated matter.
Last year, Taylor presented federal officials with plans for a “final resolution” at the site where a mudslide triggered by Ivan’s waves also buried a cluster of oil wells under mounds of sediment. Details of that plan are among the records still under wraps, but the company has said nothing can be done to completely eliminate chronic sheens at the site.
Federal regulators suspect oil is still leaking from at least one of 25 buried wells. In 2012, officials ordered the company to install a new and improved “containment dome” to capture leaking oil, but a Coast Guard document obtained by the AP said the company hadn’t finished designing the new dome as of May 1.
AP also obtained a “fact sheet” prepared this month by the Interior Department that says the leak could continue for a century or more “if left unchecked.”
But a company official has said that experts agree the “best course of action … is to not take any affirmative action” due to the risks associated with additional work at the site.
Associated Press Writer Michael Kunzelman in Baton Rouge contributed to this story.