WADE GOODWYN, HOST:
Four years ago, environmental groups monitoring BP's massive oil spill in Louisiana made a troubling discovery. Smaller leaks and spills from the 50 thousand rigs in the state's coastal zone frequently go unrecorded. It's a system that relies on polluters to self-report. So they decided to do something about it by plane, boat and satellite. Bob Marshall of member station WWNO reports.
BOB MARSHALL, BYLINE: Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans is flying Louisiana's coast looking for oil. And as usual, today he's found some.
JONATHAN HENDERSON: So I just noticed something out of the corner of my eye that looked like a sheen that had some form to it. And we're going to go take a closer look and see if there's a rainbow sheen.
MARSHALL: It's a target-rich environment for Henderson because more than 54 thousand wells were planted in and off this coast, part of the 300 thousand wells in the state. They're connected by thousands of miles of pipelines, all vulnerable to leaks. And leak they do. Louisiana admits to at least 300 thousand barrels spilled on its land and in its waters each year, 20% of the nation's total. But those figures come from a system that depends largely on oil companies to self-report. Now that problem went mostly unnoticed until the largest spill in U.S. history back in 2010 drew environmental groups to the coast looking for BP's oil.
HENDERSON: I started noticing towards the end of 2010 other leaks that were unrelated to the BP disaster. I would find wellheads that were leaking and - or platforms that were leaking. Just in the last year I filed 50 reports for different leaks and spills unrelated to the BP disaster.
MARSHALL: Under the Clean Water Act, when a company spills any amount of oil in the water, it must file a report with the National Response Center run by the Coast Guard. But when Henderson checked, he found many of those smallest spills were not making that list so environmental groups formed the Gulf Monitoring Consortium to get a better count on the spills. The partnership is a blend of complementary skills.
Gulf Restoration has personnel who can spot spills from the air and file complete reports. SouthWings, a group of volunteer pilots, helps gets those spotters aloft. And a third member, the tech group SkyTruth, based in West Virginia, finds the spills on satellite photographs, then applies a formula used by spill experts to translate the size of the oil sheen into gallons of oil in the water. SkyTruth's David Manthos says its estimates typically are much higher than what's been reported.
DAVID MANTHOS: We found that the spill was usually ten times larger than had been reported and that was averaged out across a lot. So there are some - it was very easy to see exactly how much distinction there was. In some, the mismatch was much larger than that.
MARSHALL: The sheer size of the industry here means there's seldom a quiet day for the consortium. In an average year, the NRC receives ten thousand reports of spills in the gulf. It's a number that surprised even SouthWing's Meredith Dowling, a veteran of many monitoring efforts.
MEREDITH DOWLING: I can't think of a single incidence where our volunteers have flown off-shore and not found spills. This was something that was really amazing to me. When I first moved here, I didn't understand what an on-going problem this was, that this is a continuous, absolute failure of business-as-usual practices.
MARSHALL: The partners are hoping their work educates the public to the scope of the problem and perhaps gets governments to end the voluntary compliance model and turn to aggressive enforcement by outside groups. Until that happens, consortium members say they'll keep flying, spotting and reporting. For NPR news, I'm Bob Marshall in New Orleans.
GOODWYN: Bob Marshall reports on coastal issues for the Lens, a non-profit multi-media news operation.