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Resourceful post-hurricane reporting yields exclusives on Louisiana oil spills

This image provided by NOAA taken Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 and reviewed by The Associated Press shows Oil slicks are visible at the flooded Phillips 66 Alliance Refinery in Belle Chasse, La., in an Aug. 31, 2021 photo released by NOAA and reviewed by the AP. State and federal regulators responded to the spill site on the banks of the Mississppi River after AP provided the photos of the spill and the company acknowledged a “sheen of unknown origin” at its flooded refinery. (NOAA via AP)

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As Hurricane Ida slammed into Louisiana — launching strong AP coverage that would stretch from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast — Washington-based investigative reporter Michael Biesecker began contacting federal and state officials asking about damage to petrochemical facilities. In the chaos following the storm, environmental regulators kept telling him they had no confirmed reports of oil or chemical spills along the coast.

Biesecker has covered more than a dozen hurricanes, and knew from experience that aircraft from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would be doing overflights of the hardest-hit areas for an aerial survey as soon as the clouds cleared.

When the first batch of that imagery was posted to a NOAA website late Tuesday, he began scrolling through the thousands of composite photos, looking for flooded facilities and the tell-tale rainbow sheen that indicates leaking contamination. He quickly found a worrying miles-long oil slick spreading in the Gulf of Mexico about 2 miles off Port Fourchon, the region’s main oil and gas port. He found more sheen in the water coming from a massive oil refinery along the Mississippi River.

Biesecker took screen grabs of the NOAA photos and sent them to the Environmental Protection Agency and Louisiana environmental agencies, who said they were still unaware of any spills. He also sent the images to refinery owner Phillips 66, who after days of telling Biesecker they had no problems, were forced to confirm a “sheen of unknown origin” at their flooded facility.

Biesecker’s persistence led to a series of exclusive news breaks garnering 150,000 pageviews on AP platforms. On Wednesday, he broke the news of the two oil spills with photos of the offshore slick. On Thursday, he broke news of the federal response to the spills following AP’s report. Saturday’s story detailed the effort to clean up the offshore spill. And on Monday, Biesecker was first to report that divers at the scene had identified a broken 1-foot diameter undersea pipeline as the apparent source of the offshore slick.

This series adds to a string of wins for Biesecker as he’s carved out a niche of breaking news about environmental disasters resulting from tropical storms and hurricanes.

For smart reporting that put AP ahead of the competition — and even ahead of the government and energy companies themselves — on an important environmental story in the wake of Ida, Biesecker is AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner.

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