BP is continuing to pay the price of this year's Deepwater Horizon rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil spill happened in April and oil continued to leak until the well was capped in July.
On Wednesday it was announced that the US Department of Justice(DOJ) will sue BP "without limitation." Eight other companies were also included in the lawsuit. Television reports said that the action had been expected.
Matt Eventoff is a communication and messaging strategist from Princeton Public Speaking and has written extensively about BP in the past. In an email he told me:
"It's not a surprise that a very accomplished and diligent DOJ sued BP for the damage done. The reality is that while the crisis was unfolding, the oil was not being contained and livelihoods were being changed, the number one focus of the Administration had to be containing the damage and preventing further damage."
According to a White House blog,representatives of the Department of Justice began meeting with Attorneys General and Attorneys representing the gulf region earlier this year and had also visited the Gulf to compile facts.
The visit to the Gulf of Mexico included a review of the Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the Migratory Bird Treaty and Endangered Species Acts. After a visit to the Gulf of Mexico back in June Attorney General Holder said:
"We must also ensure that anyone found responsible for this spill is held accountable. That means enforcing the appropriate civil—and if warranted, criminal—authorities to the full extent of the law.”
The civil lawsuit alleges that there were "violations of federal safety and operational regulations". There are nine defendants in total, details of them can be found here.
Under the The Clean Water Act fines start at $1,100 for each barrel spilled but can be much higher if a company is found to be negligent. In an email Professor Gregg Macey of the Brooklyn Law School told me:
“BP's potential liability is on the order of tens of billions of dollars. DOJ is seeking to recover response costs and natural resource damages through the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) and civil penalties under the Clean Water Act (CWA). To add up the potential penalties under the CWA, we need to know how many barrels of oil were released into the Gulf, so expect a fight over that number. The emerging consensus puts that number at around 4.9 million barrels, but some portion of that was captured during the response effort. The maximum penalty under CWA, if BP is found grossly negligent, is $4,300 per barrel."
“There will be tremendous pressure for BP to settle. If they don't, BP is looking at tens of billions in damages in addition to the $20 billion that it set aside earlier this year for claims by individuals and small businesses. It will be difficult for BP to seek contribution from other parties if they are found grossly negligent. DOJ's complaint alleges gross negligence. The OPA's liability limit of $75 million for economic damages does not apply in the case of gross negligence, or if the spill was caused by violations of federal safety and operating regulations. These are also detailed in the complaint."
Commenting on the impact of the spill,Professor Macey said:
“To say that the impacts of the oil spill are severe would be an understatement. Beyond the immediate damage to wildlife, coastal communities, and vast swaths of fishing areas, we're watching a massive experiment in habitat modification unfold that could take decades to run its course. When BP decided to use over a million gallons of chemical dispersants in the spill area, with EPA approval, it decided that it would rather break up the oil and have it remain in the water column which is home to much of the Gulf's biomass, instead of having more of it reach the surface. This is why we heard about those massive underwater plumes over the summer. Add to this the fact that the dispersants are highly toxic, and we're in new territory in terms of environmental impact. Dispersants can quicken the uptake of likely carcinogens found in oil, like napthalene. We won't know the extent of the damage to these ecosystems until long after the litigation has run its course.”