The Justice Department sued nine companies on Wednesday for allegedly violating environmental laws in connection with the Gulf Coast oil spill earlier this year.
The civil lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, seeks damages under the Clean Water Act. In addition, the suit, which does not seek specified damages, also seeks to declare four of the defendants liable under the Oil Pollution Act for all removal costs and damages caused by the spill, including damages to the environment.
The defendants are BP Exploration and Production Inc.; Anadarko Exploration & Production LP and Anadarko Petroleum Corporation (known collectively as “Anadarko Defendants”); MOEX Offshore 2007 LLC; Triton Asset Leasing GMBH, Transocean Holdings LLC, Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling Inc., and Transocean Deepwater Inc. (known collectively as “Transocean Defendants”); and BP’s insurer, QBE Underwriting Ltd./Lloyd’s Syndicate 1036. QBE/Lloyd’s can only be held liable for the amount of insurance policy coverage under the Oil Pollution Act.
Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference Wednesday that the DOJ plans to hold the companies “fully accountable” for any violations of the environmental laws.
“Even though the spill has been contained – even though it is no longer the focus of round-the-clock news coverage that we saw and the subject of front-page headlines – the Department’s focus on investigating this disaster, and preventing future devastation, has not wavered,” Holder said. “While today’s civil action marks a critical step forward, it is not a final step.”
Holder said the DOJ continues to investigate potential criminal infractions, in addition to possible civil violations stemming from the spill.
The Attorney General said the criminal probe is “very serious,” but declined to give a timeline on its completion.
“We are moving as quickly as we can,” Holder said. “I think one of the things that I take from what we have done today is an indication of the speed with which we have moved on this.”
Andrew Ramonas contributed reporting.
The Justice Department is expected to announce on Wednesday that it is joining several civil lawsuits against oil giant BP as a way of gaining access to legal documents that could be used in the government’s ongoing investigation into the Gulf Coast oil spill earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported.
An estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, prompting the suits. Eleven people were killed in the incident.
The Journal reported, “By joining the private litigation, Justice Department lawyers are positioning themselves to play a major role in the coming litigation, including depositions of key witnesses” which “could aid the government’s continuing probe into the disaster aimed at building a civil and possibly a criminal case against the companies involved.”
On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder will speak at the White House Forum on Environmental Justice.
UPDATE: During the White House Forum on Environmental Justice, Assistant Attorney General Ignacia Moreno was asked what DOJ is going to do about the oil spill. She responded: “On Deepwater Horizon we’re on it.”
Thad Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who has become the federal government’s point man on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, briefly met with Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff at Justice Department headquarters on Tuesday to update the nation’s top federal prosecutor on the latest developments in response to the spill.
After the meeting, Allen held his daily news briefing in the conference room on the seventh floor of the Robert F. Kennedy building. Employees removed the Justice Department emblem on the front of the podium, raised the insignia that hangs in the backdrop and the moved the department’s flag offstage.
“If you’re wondering why I’m in the DOJ building, I like to…circulate among the cabinet officers and make sure that there aren’t any issues that I need to be dealing with,” Allen said. “I had a brief meeting with the Attorney General and his staff, it was a very, very good meeting.”
There was no particular focus to the meeting with the Attorney General, Allen said, but they discussed issues the government faces in the Gulf Coast region.
They did not talk about the criminal investigation during the meeting, Allen said.
“We did not discuss the investigation per se,” Allen said, noting there were “a number of areas where our interests cross” on the issue of the oil spill.
“I’m not indicating there’s anything being walled off,” Allen said. “We just had a very general discussion about the issues that are going on down there. It just was a private discussion between myself and the Attorney General.”
Holder has been criticized in recent weeks for his announcement last month that the Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into those responsible for the oil spill. The Washington Post editorial board called his handling of the probe “odd.” But Holder has defended his announcement, arguing the extraordinary circumstances made it “appropriate to let the American people know that the federal government was understanding what was going on.”
The Attorney General visited the Gulf Coast region for the second time since the spill last week.
Allen, who as National Incident Commander reports to President Barack Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, said at the briefing that the government would allow BP to extend for 24 hours a pressure test on the capped well after they determined that a nearby seepage of oil is not related to the test.
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The Washington Post editorial board on Friday criticized Attorney General Eric Holder for his response to the oil spill, calling his announcement that the Justice Department had opened a criminal probe into the matter “odd” and “discomfiting.”
Last month, Holder traveled to the Gulf coast and, during a press conference, said the DOJ had opened a criminal investigation of the spill. Holder declined to say which companies were being investigated.
The announcement was unusual: Justice Department officials almost always decline to confirm or deny the existence of a criminal investigation. According to the U.S. Attorneys manual — the document that governs the behavior of DOJ attorneys in the field — prosecutors can only confirm probes when officials determine that an extraordinary event justifies public acknowledgment.
“In matters that have already received substantial publicity, or about which the community needs to be reassured that the appropriate law enforcement agency is investigating the incident, or where release of information is necessary to protect the public interest, safety, or welfare, comments about or confirmation of an ongoing investigation may need to be made,” the manual states. “In these unusual circumstances, the involved investigative agency will consult and obtain approval from the United States Attorney or Department Division handling the matter prior to disseminating any information to the media.”
One week before Holder announced the probe, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that “consistent with long-standing policy, we neither confirm nor deny the existence of such an investigation,” The Post noted.
In addition, the editorial also was critical of Holder’s appearance at a meeting between White House officials and representatives from BP.
Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, who lead the White House negotiations that resulted in a multibillion-dollar victims’ compensation fund, was “perfectly capable of ensuring that the fund agreement passed legal muster,” the editorial said, and Holder’s presence “inevitably raised the specter of the criminal probe — and the possibility that it could be used to pressure BP on the size and terms of the fund.”
Administration officials pointed out that Holder attended with other Cabinet secretaries and left the meeting before substantive negotiations had begun.
Because he handles both criminal and civil aspects of an issue, the Attorney General “must take great care to avoid even the appearance of conflict,” wrote the editorial board.
“Mr. Holder may not have crossed that line in the gulf oil matter, but he has come close.”
Read the full editorial here.
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Attorney General Eric Holder promised on Thursday that U.S. taxpayers would not have to bear any costs associated with cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I can make this pledge to the American people that the American people will not pay a dime for the cleanup of the Gulf region and that BP will be held responsible for all the damages that have occurred,” Holder told reporters at a news conference on Thursday. “We will take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that… occurs,” Holder said.
On Wednesday, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli said that the prospect that BP PLC may try to go into bankruptcy or split into several companies to prevent paying the full damages “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 the Justice Department was reviewing its options.
But a Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Dow Jones on Thursday that DOJ is not preparing to seek an injunction to block BP from paying dividends to shareholders, but the department has not ruled out seeking an injunction in the future.
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.