Oil had been leaking into the Gulf of Mexico for 14 years when Coast Guard Captain Kristi Luttrell was put in charge of monitoring the longest-running oil spill in U.S. history. She says in late summer 2018 she concluded the company which leased the oil rights -- also the responsible party under federal law -- was not responding in a timely way. So the veteran captain took action to save the Gulf waters she swore to protect. Jon Wertheim reports how Luttrell contracted with a local engineering firm to contain the persistent spill, despite legal pushbacks from the oil rigs' owner. The story will be broadcast on 60 Minutes, Sunday, November 7 at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
"This is the biggest pollution response case I'll see in my 28-year career," the captain says.
Hurricane Ivan had toppled an oil platform in 2004, damaging the connections to as many as 28 undersea wells. The resulting oil slick spread for miles. The responsible party, Taylor Energy, owned by a highly-respected Louisiana family, says that by 2011 they had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to plug nine of the most active wells at the site. Then, in 2014, Taylor Energy, working with government agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard, reported the leak to be down to three gallons a day and that the best solution was to leave the underwater site alone. The report warned more action could harm the environment. But in 2018, under Captain Luttrell's leadership, the Coast Guard had access to improved sonar technology and determined that significantly more oil was escaping and that something could be done to contain it.
Luttrell decided to take action and partially federalize the case, taking over the containment project.
"It didn't take me long to realize that we were going to go ahead and have to federalize this case when I didn't feel like I was getting a timely response out of the responsible party," Luttrell tells Wertheim. She put out a call for open bids on a containment system.
Local engineer Timmy Couvillion got the job after competing with several national engineering outfits. To come up with his proposal, Couvillion and two associates, another engineer and a deep-sea diver, designed a contraption that could catch the oil and gas spewing out hundreds of feet below the Gulf, separate them and move the oil to storage in large tanks. Each month, a ship goes out and transfers the oil to shore, where it is later sold as recycled oil. The federal government says some of the oil wells, which were buried in the mudslide that took down the oil platform, still need to be permanently sealed, but Couvillion's system is still capturing leaking oil, an average of about 1,000 gallons per day. Since spring of 2019, when the system came online, the Coast Guard says it has captured more than 800,000 gallons of spilled oil.
Taylor filed several lawsuits over Luttrell's intervention, including suing Couvillion.
"Kind of crazy, isn't it? It's intimidation by litigation," says Couvillion, who grew up in the Louisiana Delta. In court, Taylor disputed that Couvillion's activities needed to be going on, or even that it was Taylor's oil that was leaking.
Taylor Energy lost its case against Couvillion and the appeal. It also lost an action to recover $432 million still in a government-mandated cleanup trust Taylor funded.
Luttrell was named a defendant in the litigation, too. One of the suits charged she had overstepped her bounds as the U.S. Coast Guard on-scene coordinator. She tells Wertheim, "As the federal on-scene coordinator, I used my authority to do the right thing and to protect the environment." That case is ongoing.
Taylor Energy declined to be interviewed, but gave 60 Minutes the following statement, which reads in part: "[Taylor Energy] has retained and relied upon the world's foremost experts to study and then recommend a plan of action…We continue to advocate for a response driven by science."
60 Minutes has learned that Taylor Energy is currently in mediation with the government to conclude all the outstanding litigation at once.
for more features.