DOJ launches civil, criminal inquires into gulf oil spill

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, June 2 -- The US Department of Justice has opened civil and criminal investigations into the Apr. 20 Gulf of Mexico deepwater well blowout and rig explosion that killed 11 people and set off a major crude oil leak, US Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said on June 1.

Holder’s announcement in New Orleans came after he and other DOJ officials from Washington met with attorneys general and US attorneys for the states and districts where coastlines and communities have been affected to discuss working together. Florida Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum separately protested his state’s exclusion.

Holder reiterated what President Barack Obama said on May 28 when he was on the Gulf Coast: The administration’s primary goal is stopping the leak from BP PLC’s offshore well, containing and cleaning up the crude, and helping people in the region get back on their feet and return to their normal lives.

“But as we have said all along, we must also ensure that anyone found responsible for this spill is held accountable,” Holder said, adding, “That means enforcing the appropriate civil—and, if warranted, criminal—authorities to the full extent of the law.”

He said the many federal laws being reviewed by DOJ attorneys include the Clean Water Act, the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and other criminal statutes.

Forceful response
“There are a wide range of possible violations under these statutes, and we will closely examine the actions of those involved in the spill,” said Holder. “If we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will be forceful in our response.”

McCollum, meanwhile, questioned Holder’s decision to exclude Florida from the meeting with other Gulf Coast states’ attorneys general on the spill’s impacts. “I am disappointed the president and his attorney general didn’t appear to see the Deepwater Horizon incident as a severe threat to Florida’s economy and environment, even though according to the latest tracking reports, the oil spill could likely impact our coast within days,” McCollum said on June 1.

“Fortunately, our office has been engaged with [BP] since the onset of this disaster, pursuing relief for Floridians and Florida businesses and making the company aware of our intent to aggressively recoup all costs to the state,” McCollum said. He received written assurance from BP over the weekend, he said, in response to letters he wrote the company on May 20 and May 25, that the company would pay to clean up and pay legitimate claims from impacts if any weather event causes oil from the spill to directly affect Florida.

McCollum said he and Gov. Charlie Crist recently established a working group headed by former attorneys general Jim Smith and Bob Butterworth. “Together, we are weighing all of our options as this disaster continues to unfold,” McCollum said.

Holder noted that soon after the well blowout and rig explosion, he sent to New Orleans a team of DOJ attorneys, including Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources, and Tony West, who heads DOJ’s civil division, to begin gathering facts and coordinating the federal government’s legal response.

Guiding principles
Holder said the federal civil and criminal investigations will be governed by simple principles: “We will ensure that every cent of taxpayer money will be repaid and damages to the environment and wildlife will be reimbursed. We will make certain that those responsible clean up the mess they have made and restore or replace the natural resources lost or injured in this tragedy. And we will prosecute to the full extent any violations of the law.”

DOJ has told all relevant parties to preserve any relevant documents, he indicated. “As our review expands in the days ahead, we will be meticulous, we will be comprehensive, and we will be aggressive,” Holder said. “We will not rest until justice is done.” That includes remembering that the Apr. 20 well blowout and rig explosion took 11 workers’ lives, he added.

US Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, applauded Holder’s move. “In preparation for the committee's hearings on the oil spill, it became clear that [well owner] BP's assurances that they could respond effectively to a serious spill at this site were totally at odds with reality,” she said, noting that she and seven other committee members wrote Holder a letter on May 17 requesting an investigation. “What is happening in the gulf—11 people dead, and an entire ecosystem and the jobs that depend on it at risk—justifies a thorough criminal investigation.”

Two members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation also welcomed Holder’s action. “As I've said for weeks, we need to uncover all the facts and follow them wherever they lead. If they suggest illegal activity by BP or anyone else, that should be aggressively prosecuted. I thank the attorney general for taking that approach,” said US Sen. David Vitter, a Republican.

Meanwhile, US Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat who is running for Vitter’s seat, said, “From what we already know about the events leading up to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, there is reason to believe that BP, government agencies, and others showed a reckless disregard for the lives of their workers, the livelihoods of Louisiana families and the safety of America's wetlands. Criminal and civil investigations are the right step forward.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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