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Oil spill in Gulf of Mexico is one of more than 2,000 reports of water pollution after Ida

The Coast Guard and oil companies are working to identify and contain spills as environmental officials assess the damage

A slick in the Gulf south of Port Fourchon, La. (NOAA/AP)

The oil spill that left a smear of crude approximately 11 miles long in the Gulf of Mexico is one of more than 2,000 reports of pollution and contamination in the waterways off the coast of Louisiana after Hurricane Ida.

The Category 4 storm made landfall in Port Fourchon, one of the hubs for servicing the deep-water oil industry in the gulf. The Coast Guard is responding with personnel on boats, airplanes and on land conducting “mass amounts of assessments” to triage the environmental effects, according to Lt. John Edwards, a spokesman for the hurricane response.

Louisiana environmental officials also say that dozens of birds have been found coated with oil near the site of a flooded refinery, and some will not survive.

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The Coast Guard has received 2,113 reports of pollution or contamination in the waterways to date, with plans to follow up on each. The most significant incident so far has been the oil spill off Port Fourchon, in a lease area known as Bay Marchand Block 5.

Texas-based Talos Energy has been responding to the spill, even though company officials and the Coast Guard said the company’s equipment was not involved. The seafloor in this area has seen multiple drilling operations over the decades and authorities are still trying to identify which company’s equipment was responsible.

Divers and underwater sonar scans found “several non-Talos owned subsea pipelines that were likely impacted by Hurricane Ida, including a 12-inch diameter non-Talos owned pipeline that appears to be the source of the release,” the company said in a statement on Tuesday.

On Monday, the company’s responders installed a containment dome over the affected pipe. It allows oil to be funneled to a vessel on the surface for collection.

“Our team is doing everything possible to spearhead a fast, effective and safe containment and clean-up,” John Spath, the company’s senior vice president of production operations, said in a statement. “Although the spill was unrelated to our operations, it was important to mobilize and identify the source and to contain the release to reduce safety and environmental risks.”

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It is unclear how much oil has been spilled. A Coast Guard flight on Monday morning identified a sheen of oil about 11 miles long but reported that it was dissipating — a sign that the spill is not ongoing, according to Edwards, the Coast Guard spokesman.

“It looked like it was an isolated incident,” he said.

Another significantly smaller spill occurred about five miles away. It involved a wellhead operated by S2 Energy Operating, a company based in Covington, La., and spread oil over an area about 100 square yards, according to the Coast Guard.

The company was alerted about the spill on Sunday morning, a week after the storm hit, and had it contained by that evening, said Barry Salsbury, one of the company’s managing partners. The company used an oil containment boom, akin to a floating rope, to corral the area with oil on the surface.

Salsbury said he thinks an object struck the company’s equipment and caused what he estimated to be a spill of “a couple barrels of oil.”

“Some of this damage is by floating obstacles that come from all over the place — boats, barges, who knows what equipment that comes through — kind of like a pinball machine that goes through these storms,” he said.

One challenge in the response effort has been canals blocked with damaged boats and debris, which makes it difficult for responders to get their boats and supplies out to spill sites. Biologists working to assess the impact of the storm on wildlife have also faced difficulties: Some have lost their own homes; others have had trouble accessing boats to explore the coastline, according to Louisiana wildlife officials.

So far, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has found dozens of birds, including black-bellied whistling ducks, blue-winged teals and various egrets, smeared with oil, said Rob Shadoin, the deputy secretary.

“More are being found as we speak,” Shadoin said. “We do know that some of the birds with oil will not survive. … We’re doing what we can to rescue these birds.”

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The oil-covered birds were found near Alliance Refinery, run by Phillips 66 in Belle Chasse, La., on the banks of the Mississippi River. Floodwaters from Ida swamped the refinery, and in the days after the storm, a sheen of oil was seen on the water around the facility. Edwards, of the Coast Guard, said that flights over the area have found that all the oil is now contained within the berms around the facility.

Shadoin said “all the information we’ve got so far” indicates that the oil on the birds came from the refinery.

A Phillips 66 spokesman, Bernardo Fallas, said the refinery’s south levee wall was breached during the storm and that cleanup crews continue to remove “oil and sheen contained within some flooded areas of the refinery.”

“There has been no offsite impact,” Fallas said in a statement.

He added that the company is working with Louisiana officials to recover and rehabilitate any affected animals at the site.

Americans have been battered by climate-change-fueled disasters this year, including hurricanes, fires, floods and heat waves, and the Biden administration is under pressure to transition away from fossil fuels that are warming the planet. The administration had paused all new oil and gas leasing on public lands, but after a legal challenge, the administration will resume leases in coming months.

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