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Judge Cites BP's "Gross Negligence" in 2010 Gulf Oil Spill

PHOTO: An offshore oil platform, like this one in the North Sea, is similar to what is being proposed for the North Carolina coast. Thursday's court ruling against BP could prompt more caution in future drilling plans. Photo courtesy of Institute for Southern Studies.
PHOTO: An offshore oil platform, like this one in the North Sea, is similar to what is being proposed for the North Carolina coast. Thursday's court ruling against BP could prompt more caution in future drilling plans. Photo courtesy of Institute for Southern Studies.
September 5, 2014

NAGS HEAD, N.C. - BP now stands to pay up to $17 billion in Clean Water Act fines after a judge on Thursday ruled the oil company was "grossly negligent" in its conduct leading up to the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010.

The money will go toward the Gulf Coast cleanup, but Steve Cochran, director of the Environmental Defense Fund's Mississippi River Restoration Project, said the decision also sends a message to other companies pushing to drill off the North Carolina coast.

"For states outside of the Gulf," he said, "the real benefit of this is that it says very clearly to people who operate in offshore waters, 'If you don't take your responsibility seriously, and you let something like this happen, you're going to pay dearly for it.' "

The finding of "gross negligence" means BP is liable for fines under the Clean Water Act of up to four times the established penalty per barrel of oil spilled. A trial is to begin in January to establish how much was spilled; the federal government estimates more than 4 million barrels, while BP insists the total is a little more than half that amount.

Ultimately, much of the money will go into the Gulf Restoration Fund, established by Congress to help manage the fines collected for projects to help repair damage from the oil spill. Cochran said he thinks keeping a spill of this magnitude from happening again comes down to having proper regulations in place.

"Anyplace that's going to have any kind of offshore operations," he said, "you want to make sure that there is a serious penalty system in place."

Cochran and others said the ruling also increases the company's liability for civil penalties under the Clean Water Act. BP said it strongly disagrees with the decision issued Thursday and will immediately appeal. The two other parties involved in the spill, Halliburton and Transocean, were ruled to be "negligent."

The text of the ruling is online at laed.uscourts.gov. BP's statement in response is at bp.com.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - NC