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5 Years Later: A Look Back At The BP Oil Spill

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that began April 20, 2010, bears the distinction of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. The events of that night were tragic in every respect; the explosions that rocked the drilling rig took the lives of eleven men, causing fires that were only extinguished once the entire rig sank into the Gulf. But deep underwater, the uncapped wellhead continued to spew thousands of barrels of crude oil a day--for eighty-seven days. When the wellhead was finally successfully capped, the lives of foul, fish, business owners and nearly everyone around the Gulf would never be the same.


On September 4, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier found BP was "grossly negligent" and engaged in "willful misconduct" leading up to the oil spill. This ruling subjects BP to enhanced civil penalties under the Clean Water Act, potentially quadrupling the 3.5 billion the company has set aside to 18 billion. BP has already paid 4.5 billion in criminal fines to the U.S. government. BP "strongly disagrees" with the ruling, stating that the evidence does not meet the high bar for a finding of gross negligence.

In addition to criminal and civil fines, BP has spent billions in cleanup and settlement costs. Immediate spill response and cleanup operations--including intensive labor costs--totaled a staggering 14 billion dollars. BP also immediately established a 20 billion dollar trust fund to settle claims from individuals and businesses who suffered losses due to the effects of the spill. As of the end of 2014, 13 billion dollars had been disbursed from this fund. BP has also invested 329 million in tourism promotion, seafood testing and marketing campaigns to help bring business back to the Gulf.

BP has also paid one billion toward the start of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process, which is a consortium of projects ranging from ecological restoration (such as restoring lost marshlands and nesting areas) to recreational enhancement (such as fixing up and promoting state parks).


One of the central issues in the BP spill, and the remaining issue with respect to the civil penalties under the Clean Water Act, is the number of barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf. BP estimates 2.5 million, whereas the U.S. Government estimates at least 4.2 million. The number of barrels matters because fines are based on a rate per barrel spilled, per day. Therefore, which estimate is accepted will affect the fine ultimately paid by BP.

Recent visitors to the Gulf see water that sparkles again, and a Gulf that has seemingly recovered from that catastrophic event. Restaurants are open, fisherman are back in business, and tourists are on the beaches. But it is what people do not see that has the experts worried. Studies out of the University of Georgia show that while oil may not be visible on the surface of the Gulf any longer, it is still on the bottom of the sea floor, scattered across a 1,200 square mile area. Its impact on aquatic life and the ecosystem as a whole in the long term is unknown, and it is for this reason that many oceanographers and marine biologists dispute BP's conclusions that there are no long term ill effects from its spill. That conclusion, they argue, is premature and inappropriate with only five years of data.


Perhaps a casualty of politics and high-powered lobbying, the recommendations of the official report on the oil spill have not been implemented. Neither has legislation been passed to make the deep water oil drilling industry safer; it is the same as it was in 2010. Billions of dollars have been spent and will continue to be spent on remediation. The question is how much money has and will be spent on prevention.


If you have suffered an injury or loss due to an environmental event such as a gas explosion, flood, or a fire, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm.

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