WASHINGTON — BP and other companies not only ignored important safety and operating regulations, the Justice Department said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday, but also failed to take necessary precautions to keep BP's Gulf of Mexico well under control before the April 20 blowout that killed 11 people.
While the full scope of the disaster isn't yet known, the Justice Department wrote in its suit, "the consequences include lost lives, destroyed livelihoods, and grave harm to natural resources across several states and related waters."
The lawsuit, the first phase in punishing the parties responsible for the spill, could wrest billions of dollars in civil penalties from nine companies the Justice Department blames, including BP, for allowing an estimated 4.1 million barrels of oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico over three months. Because each barrel spilled carries a fine of as much as $4,300, those flow-rate estimates — derived by a government team and already disputed by BP — will be at the heart of the multi-billion dollar case.
The suit singles out BP, which was the primary operator of the well, and its partners in the well. It also names Anadarko Petroleum Co., and the MOEX subsidiary of Mitsui & Co., Triton Asset Leasing, and Transocean, which BP had hired to drill the well. BP's insurer, QBE Underwriting Ltd./Lloyd's, also is named.
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The suit blames the companies for violating safety procedures and failing to use the best available and safest drilling technology to monitor the well's conditions leading up to the blowout. It is separate from the department's ongoing criminal inquiry, but also is the result of a months-long investigation by the Justice Department.
Despite the suit's contention that the failed cement job contributed to the blowout, Halliburton, the company that cemented the well, wasn't named.
The Justice Department intends to prove the violations caused or contributed to the oil spill, Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday at a news conference.
"This incident claimed the lives of 11 rig workers and it marked the start of a massive oil spill that would take more than three months to contain," he said. "And it set of a chain reaction of devastating consequences for the people, for the environment, and for the economy of the Gulf Coast, a region still struggling to recover from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita."
The Justice Department is asking the court to assess civil penalties under the Clean Water Act, which prohibits the unauthorized discharge of oil into the nation's waters. It's also asking that eight of the defendants — with the exception of BP's insurance company — be declared liable in excess of the $75 million limitation under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 for all removal costs and damages caused by the oil spill. That includes environmental damages.
The Clean Water Act allows the government to seek civil fines for every drop of oil spilled into the nation's navigable waters, beginning with $1,100 per barrel spilled. If a judge finds the spill was a result of gross negligence, fines can rise to $4,300 a barrel. Each defendant could face those fines.
"This focus on responsibility comes alongside our response and recovery efforts," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "As we speak, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force is forming a strategy to help cut through red tape and align the efforts of people working to address the long decline of the Gulf Coast."
BP said in a statement that the civil suit was expected, and that the government's allegations now would have to go to court. The company said it would respond to the government's allegations "in a timely manner" and also will continue to cooperate with all government investigations and inquiries.
"Alone among the parties, BP has stepped up to pay for the clean-up of the oil, setting aside $20 billion to pay all legitimate claims. We took these steps before any legal determination of responsibility and will continue to fulfill our commitments in the Gulf as the legal process unfolds," the BP statement said.
John Christiansen, a spokesman for Anadarko, said his company wasn't involved in the operations or decision on the drilling rig.
"It is our understanding that under the Oil Pollution Act and the Clean Water Act, all of the relevant parties may be named, even though the ultimate responsibility may rest solely with the operator," he said.
Anadarko also stands by a statement made in June that blamed the oil spill on BP's "reckless decisions and actions," Christiansen said. He said Anadarko expected BP to pay all legitimate claims.
The Justice Department could add additional parties to the suit, Holder said. He also noted that the criminal investigation continues.
"As I've said from the beginning, as our investigations continue, we will not hesitate to take whatever steps are necessary to hold accountable those who are responsible for this spill," he said.
Environmentalists saw the civil suit as a positive step.
"Repairing the damage done to people, wildlife and coastal habitats is a massive undertaking and recovery of Clean Water Act penalties will be a key part of the solution," said John Kostyak, the executive director for Wildlife Conservation and Global Warming with the National Wildlife Federation.
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