The second half of a complicated civil trial began in New Orleans last week over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that killed 11 workers and spewed crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 agonizing days. The first half of the trial centered on whether BP, the rig’s owner, and its contractors were guilty of gross negligence — meaning reckless and wanton actions — causing the blowout of the well or only “simple” negligence, with less blame and, therefore, less punishment.
The trial judge, U.S. District Judge Carl J. Barbier, hasn’t ruled on the negligence charges yet, and in this second phase he will be asked to decide just how much oil flowed into the Gulf from the broken wellhead. TV news images on the video BP provided of brown oil constantly bubbling from the wellhead were searing during the three months it took for the spill to be capped.
The government says that, in all, the blowout spewed 4.2 million barrels of crude into the water, violating the Clean Water Act and other laws. BP and its partner, Anadarko Petroleum, claim that the amount was actually 2.45 million barrels.
Judge Barbier’s ultimate decisions — both on negligence and the spill amount — could mean the difference between BP paying $2.7 billion or up to $18 billion in fines for violating pollution laws.
There’s a lot at stake, not least of all the continuing recovery of the Gulf and those who rely on it for their livelihoods. In the aftermath of the spill, Congress passed a law requiring that 80 percent of any Clean Water fines be returned to the Gulf area, which still needs every bit of help it can get.
BP has so far spent more than $42 billion on cleaning up the environment and compensating victims. Damage claims, for which there is no cap, are still being filed by individuals and businesses. There is no end in sight for BP, which last year pleaded guilty to 14 criminal charges, including manslaughter, and acknowledged negligence in misinterpreting data before the explosion occurred. It must pay $4.5 billion in criminal fines.
The Gulf itself is a recovering work in progress. Some fisheries are doing better, but others, not so much. Fishermen say the blue crab harvest all along the coast is down, for instance.
Whether 2 million or 4 million barrels of oil were inflicted on it, the Gulf is still in trouble. The oil plume covered 360 square miles at one time. Deep sea damage has been found up to 10 miles from the wellhead.
This month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the Gulf will be in recovery for decades. Tar balls still wash up on beaches, especially those closest to the spill in Louisiana.
There’s a reason the government seeks big fines from polluters, wanton or otherwise. It’s to prevent future such disasters.
BP’s long days in court should be a cautionary tale for every other oil company operating here.