US Attorney General launches criminal investigation into Deepwater Horizon spill

Publish date: June 1, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – The US federal government today announced that it will launch criminal and civil investigations into BP’s massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico, saying it will be “extremely forceful in our response” if the probes reveal evidence of illegal behaviour, US Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters.

The announcement marks a watershed in relations between the government and BP as the White House endeavours to disentangle itself from the mega oil giant and assume a far more stern approach to the company’s flailing efforts to plug the 42-day-old leak, representing the worst environmental catstrophe the US has ever faced. 

Holder, who was visiting the Gulf to survey the fragile coastline and meet with state and federal prosecutors, would not specify the companies or individuals that might be targeted in the probes into the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

His visit coincides with the beginning of BP’s latest effort in a litany of failures to staunch the flow of oil from the well in a procedure called the “lower marine riser package cap,” or LMRP.

BP was using robotic machines to carve into the twisted appendages of the crippled well. The latest attempt involves using tools resembling an oversized deli slicer and garden shears to break away the broken riser pipe so engineers can then position a cap over the well’s opening.

Even if it succeeds, it will temporarily increase the flow of an already massive leak by 20 percent — at least 100,000 gallons more a day. And it is far from certain that BP will be able to cap a well that one expert compared to an out-of-control fire hydrant.

“It is an engineer’s nightmare,” said Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University professor of environmental sciences. “They’re trying to fit a 21-inch cap over a 20-inch pipe a mile away. That’s just horrendously hard to do. It’s not like you and I standing on the ground pushing — they’re using little robots to do this.”

Bellona President Frederic Hauge warned that drilling fluids that had been pumped into the drilling column of the well in an effort to clog it in BP’s failed “top kill” measure have possibly weakened and corroded pipes to the point that the present LMRP efforts may actualy blow out the pipes altogether, resulting in an oil belching volcanic crater that cannot be stopped.

Late in the day, some good news did emerge from the White House, indicating that the relief wells being drilled by BP as part of the long-term strategy to permanently staunch the flow of oil from the undersea leak was ahead of schedule.

Yet, efforts to collect some of the 19,000 gallons of oil already spilled were proceding with unimpressive results.

A spokeswoman at the Joint Information Centre (JIC), which daily compiles data from the US Coast Guard, BP, Federal officials and other’s involve in the cleanup said that 13.5 million gallons of oil and water mix have been pulled from the ocean. But this is a skewed analysis, according to Richard Charter, a foremost expert on offshore drilling with Defenders of Wildlife.

Early in efforts to skim oil in the gulf, JIC trumpeted figures of some 200,000 gallons of oil skimmed from the surface. Only 10 percent of that turned out to be crude.

“Of the 11 million gallons spilled by the Exxon Valdez, only 2 percent of what was collected was oil,” Charter told Bellona Web in a telephone interview. “I would say that between the burns and the skimming, the amount of oil collected from the Gulf so far is insignificant and can’t event be assigned a percentage yet,” adding, “It will take years before this is known.”

Holder told reporters in New Orleans that, “We will closely examine the actions of those involved in the spill. If we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will be extremely forceful in our response.”

The operation – like all of BP’s other effort to close off the spill –  has never been performed in such deep water, and is similar to an earlier failed attempt that used a larger cap and quickly froze up. BP officials said they were applying lessons learned from the earlier effort.

“If all goes as planned, within about 24 hours we could have this contained,” BP’s Doug Suttles said Tuesday after touring a temporary housing facility set up for cleanup workers in Grand Isle. “But we can’t guarantee success.”

Investigations to be ‘meticulous’ and ‘aggressive’ – Holder

After meeting with state and federal prosecutors in New Orleans, Holder told reporters that federal agencies will conduct a “meticulous,” “comprehensive” and “aggressive” investigation to see if companies involved in the oil spill have broken any federal laws.

“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,” Holder said. “And we will prosecute to the full extent any violations of the law.”

President Obama dispatched Holder to the Gulf Coast to tour the spill area and to meet with state and federal prosecutors in the affected area. Holder said federal attorneys are reviewing a “wide range” of possible violations to the Clean Water Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Oil Pollution Act and other statutes.

Senate Democrats sent a letter to Holder two weeks ago calling for a full civil and criminal investigation into BP’s role in the ongoing oil spill. The letter from Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and a half-dozen other panel members said the oil company has consistently understated the risks associated with the deepwater drilling violation, E&E News reported.

The investigation marks a shift, as the administration shows more aggression and separation from BP in its response to the oil spill.

Obama to special commission: pursue leads ‘without fear or favour’

After a meeting with leaders of a new commission he appointed to investigate the spill today, Obama made a “solemn pledge” to prosecute those responsible for the spill, if they broke the law.

“If our laws were broken, leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region,” Obama told reporters.

Obama also said he would consider changes to regulations, enforcement and laws to try to ensure a similar leak does not happen in the future.

“If the laws on our books are insufficient to prevent such a spill, the laws must change,” Obama said. “If oversight was inadequate to enforce these laws, oversight has to be reformed.”

He ordered the co-chairmen of the independent commission to thoroughly examine the disaster “to follow the facts wherever they lead, without fear or favour.”

The commission — led by Bob Graham, a former Florida governor and US senator, and William K. Reilly, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency — will be examining the disaster and its causes. The president said that if laws are insufficient, they’ll be changed. He said that if government oversight wasn’t tough enough, that will change, too.

“We will ensure that every cent, every cent of taxpayer money, will be repaid and that damage to the environment and wildlife will be reimbursed,” Holder told reporters.