Feds responding to reports of oil, chemical spills after Ida

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal and state agencies say they are responding to reports of oil and chemical spills resulting from Hurricane Ida following the publication of aerial photos by The Associated Press.

Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Nick Conger said Thursday that a special aircraft carrying photographic and chemical detection equipment was dispatched from Texas to Louisiana to fly over the area hard hit by the Category 4 storm, including a Phillips 66 refinery along the Mississippi River where the AP first reported an apparent oil spill on Wednesday.

Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer 3rd Class Gabriel Wisdom said Thursday that its aircraft has also flown over the refinery, as well as to the Gulf of Mexico. The AP published photos of a miles-long brownish-black slick in the waters south of Port Fourchon, Louisiana.

The AP first reported the possible spills Wednesday after reviewing aerial images of the disaster zone taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ida made landfall Sunday, its eyewall carving through Louisiana with 150 mph winds and a storm surge so powerful it temporarily reversed the flow of the mighty Mississippi.

The NOAA photos showed a black and brown slick floating near a large rig with the name Enterprise Offshore Drilling painted on its helipad. The company, based in Houston, said Thursday that its Enterprise 205 rig was safely secured and evacuated prior to the storm’s arrival and that it did not suffer any damage.

“Enterprise personnel arrived back at the facility on September 1 and confirmed the integrity of all systems and that no environmental discharges occurred from our facility,” the company said in a statement.

Sandy Day, spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which regulates oil rigs, confirmed it had received a report Wednesday about which the oil spill the AP had published photos. But the location was inside state waters, rather than the federal jurisdiction farther offshore.

Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, said his agency had no way to physically investigate the spill.

“It’s going to be awhile for us before we can make our way out there,” Courreges said Thursday. ”We don’t have planes, helicopters or Gulf-seaworthy boats.”

Aerial photos taken by an NOAA aircraft Tuesday also showed significant flooding to the massive Phillips 66 Alliance Refinery in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. In some sections of the refinery, a rainbow sheen and black streaks were visible on the water leading toward the river.

In statements issued Monday and Tuesday, Phillips 66 said “some water” was inside the refinery, but did not respond to questions about environmental hazards.

Only after the AP sent the company photos Wednesday showing extensive flooding and what appeared to be petroleum in the water, the company confirmed it had “discovered a sheen of unknown origin in some flooded areas of Alliance Refinery.”

“At this time, the sheen appears to be secured and contained within refinery grounds,” Phillips 66 spokesman Bernardo Fallas said Wednesday evening, three days after the hurricane blew through. “Clean-up crews are on site. The incident was reported to the appropriate regulatory agencies upon discovery.”

Though Fallas characterized the spill as a “sheen of unknown origin,” the report Phillips 66 made to Louisiana regulators Wednesday called it “heavy oil in floodwater,” according to a state call log provided to the AP. The log also contained a call from an oyster harvester concerned that water contamination from the refinery was fouling environmentally sensitive beds downriver.

Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Greg Langley said Wednesday that a state assessment team was sent to the refinery and observed an on-site oil spill being addressed with booms and absorbent pads. A levee meant to protect the plant had breached, allowing floodwaters to flow in during the storm and then back out as the surge receded.

Langley said there was no estimate available for how much oil might have spilled from the refinery.

Louisiana regulators were tracking about 100 reports of chemical and petroleum spills statewide as of Wednesday. The reports ranged from sunken boats leaking diesel to overturned fuel tanks and flooded oil pipelines, according to the call log. Several chemical manufacturers also reported venting or flaring off toxic chemicals due to losing electricity.

Stephanie Morris, spokesperson for the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office, said that four days after Ida hit, state regulators were still in the very early stages of responding to the environmental hazards spawned by the storm. She said a state aircraft had been flying over the affected area, focusing more on identifying ongoing threats than quantifying what had already leaked into the water and air.

“We’re in what we call the rapid assessment phase, because we are trying to assess it from the air,” Morris said. “We’re just getting a sense of what’s out there and locations. We don’t have a sense yet of what the sources of sheens might be or volumes.”

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Follow AP Investigative Reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.

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