A 15-year-old oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been partially tamed with the help of a containment device designed by a group of Louisiana engineers, but the drama is not quite over, with continuing lawsuits hanging over the handling of the leak.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Unified Command contracted with Couvillion Group of Belle Chasse, La., to design, build and install a containment system to stem the flow of oil and natural gas from the long-leaking well, about 11 miles offshore of Louisiana.

 “To date, over 100,000 gallons of oil have been contained and removed from the (Taylor) site, and the sheen has been substantially reduced and almost eliminated on most days,” says Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Rachel Ault. The containment system will continue to be used until the source of the spill is under control, she adds. There is no estimate on when the spill will be contained.

It began Sept. 15, 2004, when Hurricane Ivan toppled the Saratoga oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico and oil and gas gushed freely from its 17 producing  wells. Operator Taylor Energy Co. LLC responded with operations to reduce leaks from the wrecked pipes, but in 2007, its lease expired. The U.S. Coast Guard then formed a Unified Command with Taylor to oversee completion of the plugging and cleanup operations.

Taylor subsequently sealed nine of the wells, but the tangle of well bores buried under 150 ft of mud was so complicated that Unified Command began looking for alternatives to conventional plugging and abandonment of the rest of the wells.

While Taylor has said that the wells were leaking just a few gallons a day, a federal study released earlier this year found that the wells have been releasing as much as 4,500 gallons a day.

Last October, Coast Guard Capt. Kristi Luttrell, the Federal On Site Coordinator (FOSC) of the Taylor site cleanup, ordered Taylor to propose a final viable plan for a containment system. Taylor failed to comply, so in November, she partially assumed response actions to contain the spill and minimize the sheen.

Luttrell assessed different options and contracted with Couvillion Group through a competitive bid process, using money from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, to design, build and install a rapid-response containment system capable of capturing and containing hundreds of gallons of oil per day subsea.

Since 2004, the Coast Guard’s National Pollution Funds Center has billed Taylor Energy more than $27 million for the cost of construction and containment. Taylor has paid $78,827, according to the Coast Guard.

Taylor has sued Luttrell and the Coast Guard challenging their use of the funds. It has also sued Couvillion Group CEO Tim Couvillion for what the company claims is his lack of professional qualifications.

“Response time is very important in an oil-spill,” says Couvillion. “Although this thing had been going on for a long time, the government finally obtained enough  to call B.S. on Taylor. Once they got that information, the threat to public safety was established and then it’s an emergency.”

Couvillion engineers brainstormed containment designs. Once the team settled on the design, “we had four different engineering firms producing drawings and such, and then I would bid it out,” one component at a time, Couvillion says. “We wound up having five different fabricators fabricating at six different locations, so the fit test became incredibly important and our quality assurance and quality control became paramount.”

As finally installed on April 16, the containment system consists of a shallow steel box, 3 ft high, 40 x 40 ft with a 10 x 20 extension to cover the 17 x 54-ft area of the discharge. “We had four very distinct plumes,” consisting of gas, oil and reservoir water, Couvillion says. Inside the box, the captured plumes feed into a separator, where the oil is sent to storage, the gas is vented and the water drops out. The oil is periodically transferred to shore for proper disposal through an oil recycler.

 “We overboarded over 200 tons of fabricated steel and nothing came back on deck,” Couvillion asserts. “This was attaching new steel to a beat-up rig, and everything was overboarded one time, and everything fit together. That was an amazing accomplishment.”

The contractor  did many ovality checks and surveys and knew exactly where it would put clamps to tether the containment to the wrecked jacket, Couvillion adds. “Out of all those clamps—20-some odd clamps—we only had one that we required the fabricator to redo it, and it was just a half-inch out on a 40-in. member.”