February 26, 2013

High-stakes trial resumes over 2010 Gulf oil spill

A federal judge will decide whether the company's actions were negligent or grossly negligent.

Michael Kunzelman / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Oil can be seen spreading in the Gulf of Mexico more than 50 miles southeast of Louisiana, as a large plume of smoke rises from fires on BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig on April 21, 2010.

The Associated Press

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Kayla Dibenedetto attempts to catch a brown pelican covered with oil spilled as a result of the rig explosion, at Grand Isle, La., on June 5, 2010.

The Associated Press

One of the biggest questions facing U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is hearing the case without a jury, is whether BP acted with gross negligence.

Under the Clean Water Act, a polluter can be forced to pay a minimum of $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil; the fines nearly quadruple to about $4,300 a barrel for companies found grossly negligent, meaning BP could be on the hook for nearly $18 billion.

The judge plans to hold the trial in at least two phases. The first phase, which could last three months, is designed to determine what caused the blowout and assign percentages of blame to the companies involved. The second phase will determine what efforts the companies made to stop oil from spilling, and how much crude actually spilled into the Gulf.

During opening statements, BP and its partners pointed the finger at each other in a tangle of accusations and counter-accusations. But BP got the worst of it, from its partners and the plaintiffs in the case.

Jim Roy, who represents individuals and businesses hurt by the spill, said BP executives applied "huge financial pressure" to "cut costs and rush the job." The project was more than $50 million over budget and behind schedule at the time of the blowout, Roy said.

"BP repeatedly chose speed over safety," Roy said, quoting from a report by an expert who may testify.

Roy said the spill also resulted from Transocean's "woeful" safety culture and failure to properly train its crew. And Roy said Halliburton provided BP with a product that was "poorly designed, not properly tested and was unstable."

Brad Brian, a lawyer for Transocean, said the company had an experienced, well-trained crew on the rig. He said the Transocean workers' worst mistake may have been placing too much trust in the BP supervisors on the rig.

"And they paid for that trust with their lives," Brian said. "They died not because they weren't trained properly. They died because critical information was withheld from them."

A lawyer for Halliburton defended the company's work and tried to pin the blame on BP and Transocean.

"If BP had shut in the well, we would not be here today," Halliburton's Donald Godwin said.

Brock said Transocean's crew members ultimately were responsible for well control on the rig and didn't need permission from BP supervisors to shut in the well.

"Shut in the well, then seek advice," he said.

Underhill, the Justice Department attorney, heaped blame on BP for cost-cutting decisions made in the months and weeks leading up the disaster. He said two BP rig supervisors, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, disregarded abnormally high pressure readings that should have been glaring indications of trouble.

Kaluza and Vidrine have been indicted on federal manslaughter charges.

The 2010 spill fouled marshes, killed wildlife and closed fishing grounds. Scientists warn that the disaster's full effect may not be known for years. But they have reported dying coral reefs and fish afflicted with lesions and illnesses that might be oil-related.

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