Feds Conducting Criminal Probe of Gulf Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is now the subject of a criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the probe yesterday while visiting New Orleans.

At a news conference, Holder said the criminal probe had begun several weeks ago. He would not say what companies were under investigation, but they likely include BP, TransOcean LTD, Halliburton Energy Services, Inc. and Cameron International Corp. BP, of course, holds the lease on the undersea well in the Gulf of Mexico, while TransOcean is the owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon rig. Halliburton contractors performed cement work on the well, and Cameron International provided the blowout preventer that should have stopped the uncontrolled flow of oil and gas that led to the disaster.

Holder said his department will ensure that taxpayer money will be repaid and that damage to the environment and wildlife will be reimbursed.

“We will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law anyone who has violated the law,” he said. “This disaster is nothing less than a tragedy.”

Relevant parties have already been directed to preserve documents related to the disaster, Holder said.

Disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have resulted in criminal penalties before. In 1991, for example, Exxon paid just over $1 billion in penalties and damages to settle criminal and civil charges related to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. At the time, the $125 million in criminal penalties Exxon paid was the largest of its kind in history. Any penalties incurred by BP and other parties responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill would certainly exceed those assessed to Exxon.

Yesterday, Holder said his department’s investigation of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will focus on possible violations of the Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Endangered Species Act.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill began on April 20, when the oil rig exploded, killing 11 crew. BP is still trying to stop the gushing well, which has been spewing as much as 800,000 gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico.

Already, more than 100 miles of Louisiana coast has been fouled by oil, and crude has already been reported along barrier islands in Alabama and Mississippi. The oil spill was also expected to make landfall around Pensacola, Florida sometime today. An oil sheen has been confirmed about nine miles from Pensacola beach.

So far, all of BP’s efforts to stop the spill have failed. The company is now using submersible robots in an attempt break away the broken riser pipe so engineers can then position a cap over the well’s opening. The procedure will increase the flow of oil at least temporarily before the leak can be contained. As with all of BP’s attempts thus far, there is no guarantee that this procedure will work.

If it doesn’t work, the well could very well continue to gush until at least mid-August. That’s when BP says two relief wells it is drilling to permanently stop the flow should be completed.

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