BP workers indicted for Macondo blowout, spill; civil fines pending against firm

BP PLC and the US Justice Department reached a settlement regarding some criminal aspects of the deepwater Macondo well blowout but US prosecutors continue pursuing civil claims that BP committed “gross negligence” when nearly 5 million bbl of crude oil escaped from the well during 2010.

A civil trial is scheduled before a federal judge in New Orleans in February 2013. US Atty. Gen. Eric Holder said Nov. 15 that negotiations continue with BP on the civil claims and potential fines.

BP said settlement of the criminal case is consistent with its stance that it is not grossly negligent. The company also has said it is prepared to defend itself against such claims in civil proceedings.

Under provisions of the Clean Water Act, BP still could face penalties and fines as high as $20 billion if found to have been grossly negligent, which involves “conscious and voluntary disregard.”

Potential fines for the oil spill could range from $1,100/bbl to as high as $4,300/bbl.

“We have not reached a number that we considered satisfactory,” Holder said of continuing negotiations with BP.

BP personnel indicted

US officials also indicted on criminal charges three men who worked for BP at the time of the blowout and resulting explosion and fire on Transocean Ltd.’s semisubmersible drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon.

Don Vidrine and Robert Kaluza each were charged with 11 counts of “seaman’s manslaughter,” 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and one violation of the Clean Water Act. Vidrine and Kaluza were aboard the Deepwater Horizon.

The charges stem from alleged misinterpretation of safety tests, prosecutors said. Vidrine and Kaluza could face up to 10 years in prison for each seaman's manslaughter charge, 8 years for each involuntary manslaughter charge, and 1 year for the Clean Water Act charge.

David Rainey, BP’s former head of Gulf of Mexico exploration, was charged with obstruction of Congress and making false statements to a law enforcement officer regarding about how much oil was being released into the gulf. If convicted, Rainey faces up to 5 years in prison for each charge.

Markey: BP deserves penalty

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who was chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy and Environment Subcommittee during the Macondo blowout, said the Obama administration and DOJ held BP to the highest level of accountability that the law allows.

“BP deserves this record-breaking penalty,” Markey said. “Now, it is up to Congress to enact laws that raise both the safety standards for offshore drilling and the liability cap for companies that still spill.”

Markey said federal lawmakers have a responsibility to ensure the safety of deepwater drilling.

“This settlement may have closed a chapter of this disaster with the government, but we still have a responsibility to monitor the lingering effects from the spill and put in place new laws that reduce the likelihood of such a catastrophe occurring ever again,” he said.

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the Nov. 15 settlement announcement “an important step in holding BP accountable.” He served on the National Oil Spill Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

“It’s especially significant that BP is pleading guilty to felonies,” Beinecke said. “No fine or admission of guilt can ever bring back the 11 lives lost, nor can it make the communities of the gulf whole again. What we hope it does is send a signal to Big Oil that unrelenting irresponsibility will no longer be tolerated. Human life, devastated communities, and destroyed resources should never be the cost of doing business.”

Contact Paula Dittrick at paulad@ogjonline.com.

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