Oceanographers testify in Deepwater Horizon civil suit

by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer This fall has seen the endgame of the US Justice Department’s civil case against British Petroleum and eight partners in the matter of the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout, likely to be settled soon, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Justice Department is suing under the Clean Water Act for damages from the 2010 accident, which killed eleven men and spilled a net 4.2 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, endangering the people, wildlife, and ecosystems of the gulf. The case was scheduled to go to trial in January 2013. In an August memorandum, the JD accused BP of gross negligence. BP could be liable for between $5.4 billion and $21 billion in this case [update to clarify: $21 billion under the Clean Water Act alone; as John Kostyak points out in the comments, the defendants may face further liability under the Oil Pollution Act, among others. Settlement negotiations involve tradeoffs in penalties (it isn’t clear that the OPA fines won’t be levied instead of, rather than in addition to, CWA fines), and as OPA fines count as a tax write-off, and CWA monies mostly go to the States, with less stringent requirements that they be applied to environmental remediation, the political pressures are complex. Dare I say, Byzantine? Louisiana is now asking for a separate trial. The WSJ reported that the government is negotiating a combined settlement for criminal penalties. I urge interested readers to click through to the story for details], and also faces a class action suit on behalf of coastal businesses. Its liability under the CWA is dependent on the volume of oil spilled (and findings of negligence) – a number which is, naturally, under dispute. Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have found themselves uncomfortably caught up in the legal proceedings after volunteering expert assistance during the emergency. Called upon to help in assessing the failure of the blowout preventer and measuring the rate of oil flow from the broken well, first by BP and later by the US Coast Guard, the scientists have been pushed into taking a side in the case when their findings were seen as unfavorable to the defendants. BP is, in any case, treating them as hostile witnesses. Last Spring, defense council subpoenaed more than 3000 emails that passed between oceanographers Christopher Reddy, Richard Camilli, and their colleagues during the exploration and data analysis, and in communication with editors and peer reviewers during publication negotiations. The team had already supplied BP with 52,000 pages of data and other materials used to reach their conclusions. “When BP sent its...

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