Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli said Wednesday that the Justice Department continues to closely monitor the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and will use all possible means to hold those responsible accountable for the damage.
Perrelli testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in support of the Obama administration’s proposal to lift the cap on liability for economic damages incurred following oil spills. Under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, liability is capped at $75 million.
But Perrelli said that while the Oil Pollution Act is the primary vehicle for addressing liability, it is not the only means of seeking compensation.
“It is important to remember that OPA expressly preserves state and other federal mechanisms for pursuing damages for injuries caused by such incidents and for assessing penalties for the underlying conduct that may cause such disasters,” Perrelli said in prepared remarks.
Perrelli also noted that there are at least three recognized exceptions to the cap, including when there has been negligence.
BP has promised it will not limit itself to the $75 million cap and will pay all legitimate claims. Perrilli said the Justice Department expects BP to uphold that commitment.
At least one member raised concerns because BP qualified its pledge by saying it would pay “legitimate” claims. But Perrelli told the committee that “legitimate” is not a legal term.
“The term ‘legitimate,’ as I’ve heard it, has been used by BP. It’s not a statutory term,” Perrelli said. “Our view is that the scope of damages that is available under OPA is quite broad…and we anticipate pursing BP and other responsible parties for a wide range of damages.”
Perrelli also said the Justice Department was concerned that BP may try to go into bankruptcy or split into several companies to prevent paying the full damages.
“It is an issue of real concern to us because we want to make that the responsible parties truly have the wherewithal to compensate the American people for the damage done,” Perrelli said. “We are reviewing our options, and hope to be able to report back to you soon with the action we’ll take.”
Attorney General Eric Holder has assembled a team of lawyers from the Civil Division and the Environment and Natural Resource Division who have experience with the legal issues that arise out of oil spills and other environmental disasters, Perrelli said.
“President Obama, the Department of Justice, and the entire administration are committed to ensuring that those responsible for this tragic series of events are held fully accountable,” Perrelli said.
Perrelli’s full remarks are embedded below.