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

NEW ORLEANS — A University of California-Berkeley engineer who played a prominent role in investigating levee breeches in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is scheduled to be the first witness Tuesday at a trial involving another Gulf Coast catastrophe: the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

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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

Robert Bea, an expert witness for the plaintiffs who sued BP PLC and other companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, will share his theories about what caused BP's Macondo well to blow out on April 20, 2010, provoking an explosion on the Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and spewed an estimated 172 millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf.

Bea's testimony was scheduled for the second day of a civil trial that could result in the oil company and its partners being forced to pay tens of billions of dollars more in damages. The case went to trial Monday after attempts to reach an 11th-hour settlement failed.

The second witness slated to appear on the stand is Lamar McKay, president of BP America. The highest-ranking executive of BP scheduled to testify in the courtroom, McKay is likely to discuss corporate decisions that were made throughout the duration of the disaster. It was not clear if there would be time for his testimony Tuesday, however. Other BP officials were expected to give videotaped testimony.

In pretrial depositions and in an expert report, Bea argued along with another consultant that BP showed a disregard for safety throughout the company and was reckless in its actions — the same arguments made in opening statements Monday by attorneys for the U.S. government and individuals and businesses hurt by the spill.

Attorneys for BP tried to block the testimony of Bea, whom they accused of analyzing documents and evidence "spoon-fed" to him by plaintiffs lawyers. BP accused Bea and the other expert, William Gale, a California-based fire and explosion investigator and consultant, of ignoring the "safety culture of the other parties" involved in the spill, in particular Transocean Ltd., the drilling company running operations aboard the Deepwater Horizon.

Gale does not appear on a list of potential witnesses to be called during the trial.

Just last year, Bea testified for plaintiffs who sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over broken levees in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

In opening statements Monday, U.S. Justice Department attorney Mike Underhill said the catastrophe resulted from BP's "culture of corporate recklessness."

"The evidence will show that BP put profits before people, profits before safety and profits before the environment," Underhill said. "Despite BP's attempts to shift the blame to other parties, by far the primary fault for this disaster belongs to BP."

BP attorney Mike Brock acknowledged that the oil company made mistakes. But he accused Transocean of failing to properly maintain the rig's blowout preventer, which had a dead battery, and he claimed cement contractor Halliburton used a "bad slurry" that failed to prevent oil and gas from traveling up the well.

BP has already pleaded guilty to manslaughter and other criminal charges and has racked up more than $24 billion in spill-related expenses, including cleanup costs, compensation for businesses and individuals, and $4 billion in criminal penalties.

But the federal government, Gulf Coast states and individuals and businesses hope to convince a federal judge that the company and its partners in the ill-fated drilling project are liable for much more in civil damages under the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations.

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