- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Obama administration on Wednesday sued BP PLC and eight other firms for their roles in the Gulf oil disaster, saying they violated federal environmental laws in a bid to recoup billions of dollars in cleanup costs and damages after the worst oil spill in the nation’s history.

The civil filing marks the federal government’s first spill-related lawsuit.

“This is about getting a fair deal for the region that suffered enormous consequences from this disaster. And it’s also about securing the future of the Gulf Coast,” said Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. “Ensuring accountability strengthens our ongoing efforts to help Gulf Coast communities get their lives and livelihoods back on track.”

In the lawsuit, announced by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the Justice Department accuses the companies of failing to take proper safety precautions and seeks financial penalties under the Oil Pollution Act and the Clean Water Act.

The government does not specify how much money it’s seeking.

The Justice Department has asked a federal court in New Orleans to hold the companies liable for unlimited damages under the Oil Pollution Act. Fines under the Clean Water Act could range from about $5 billion to more than $20 billion, depending on whether the defendants are found to have been negligent and whether estimates that 4.9 million barrels of oil spewed into the ocean are accurate.

In a statement, BP described the lawsuit as a move by the government to “preserve its procedural rights” and stressed that the action does not “in any manner constitute any finding of liability or any judicial finding that the allegations have merit.”

The company, which this summer set aside a $20 billion claims fund under an agreement with the White House, pledged to “continue to fulfill our commitments in the Gulf as the legal process unfolds.”

The spill took a major political toll on Mr. Obama over the summer as plugging the leak proved to be elusive. As polls showed voters disapproved of his handling, Mr. Obama took repeated trips to the Gulf to show his concern and to pledge his support for the coast’s economic recovery.

At the same time, he imposed a moratorium on new offshore drilling in order to give the administration time to draft new safety rules. That decision drew criticism from Gulf-state lawmakers, who said it was needlessly costing jobs at a time when the economy was already suffering.

Mr. Obama lifted the moratorium in October, but then reversed that decision earlier this month.

In the new civil complaint,the government accuses BP and other defendants of violating federal safety and operating rules by failing to use the best available and safest drilling technology to monitor the well; maintain continuous surveillance; and use and maintain equipment and material that were available and necessary to ensure the safety and protection of personnel, equipment, natural resources and the environment.

More than 300 oil-spill-related lawsuits have been brought by parts of the fishing, tourism and real estate industries. Local governments, including the state of Alabama, have sued BP and other firms over the spill.

The Justice Department lawsuit does not name Halliburton Co., which designed the cement used in the blown-out well. Halliburton has been the target of criticism by a presidential panel that’s investigating the spill.