- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Opening a new front in the battle to contain the worst oil spill in the nation’s history, the Obama administration on Tuesday began a criminal investigation into the causes and consequences of the environmental disaster plaguing the Gulf Coast.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. revealed the criminal and civil probes into the BP oil-rig disaster just hours after President Obama vowed that government investigators would conduct a “full and vigorous accounting” of the still-uncapped spill. The president also ordered the oil giant to compensate those whose livelihoods have been harmed.

“We have an obligation to investigate what went wrong and to determine what reforms are needed so that we never have to experience a crisis like this again,” Mr. Obama told reporters in the Rose Garden after a meeting with the two co-chairmen of a new government panel that will oversee the probe.

While on a tour of the area in New Orleans, Mr. Holder promised a “meticulous, comprehensive and aggressive” government probe to ensure that “the American people do not foot the bill for this disaster and that our laws are enforced to the full extent.”

“That is our responsibility, and we will do nothing less,” said Mr. Holder, revealing that a team of Justice Department lawyers from Washington had met with attorneys general and U.S. attorneys in the states and districts whose coastlines and residents have been affected by the spill. “We will not rest until justice is done.”

Mr. Obama made his statement just days after BP’s latest attempt at capping the gushing well off the coast of Louisiana, known as the “top kill” method, failed. The company is trying another risky temporary fix to contain the oil and siphon it to the surface by sawing through the leaking pipe and putting a cap over the spill.

The Associated Press reported that Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander, said BP was making its first major cut with supershears that weigh 46,000 pounds and resemble a giant garden tool. BP’s latest attempt involves cutting the broken riser pipe, making it spew as much as 20 percent more oil into the water for days while engineers try to position a cap over the opening.

Eric Smith, an associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute, said the strategy had about a 50 percent to 70 percent chance to succeed. He likened it to trying to place a tiny cap on a gushing fire hydrant.

BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said there was no guarantee the cut-and-cap effort would work. He did say the company has learned from past efforts to contain the leak, which gives it a better shot at success.

“I’m very hopeful,” Mr. Suttles told reporters. “I think we’ll find out over the next couple of days.”

If all else fails, the company plans to drill a pair of “relief wells” as a last resort to stop the gusher, a process that will not be completed until August.

In the meantime, Mr. Obama said, more than 20,000 people in the region are trying to contain and clean up the spewing oil, which has gushed by the millions of gallons since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20. The accident killed 11 people.

Mr. Obama said Tuesday that he has authorized 17,000 additional National Guard members to respond across the four states whose coastlines are being affected.

Echoing remarks he made at a news conference last week, Mr. Obama slammed what he described as a “far-too-cozy” relationship between oil firms and their regulatory agencies. He touted some reforms his administration has proposed, such as splitting off the licensing authority of the federal Minerals Management Service, a division of the Interior Department, from its duty to collect drilling royalties, but vowed further action if necessary.

“If oversight was inadequate to enforce these laws, oversight needs to be reformed,” Mr. Obama said. “If our laws were broken, leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region.”

He has tapped former Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, and William K. Reilly, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to lead the commission, which will report its findings in six months.

Mr. Holder told reporters that a wide range of suspected violations are under investigation. He said oil company executives and others involved in the spill and the attempted cleanup have been advised to preserve any documents related to the disaster.

He also said the Justice Department investigation would include a look into the explosion that caused the spill and the death of the oil-rig workers.

“Eleven innocent lives lost,” he said. “As we examine the causes of the explosion and subsequent spill, I want to assure the American people that we will not forget the price those workers paid.”

Mr. Holder said that during a visit to the Gulf Coast, he saw “oil for miles and miles,” adding that it already has affected plant and animal life along the coast and “has impacted the lives and livelihoods of all too many in this region.”

“This disaster is nothing less than a tragedy,” he said.

The Justice Department team is headed by Ignacia Moreno, who heads the Environment and Natural Resources Division, and Tony West, chief of the Civil Division.

Mr. Holder said the government’s investigation will seek to ensure that “every cent of taxpayer money” is repaid and that the damage to the environment and wildlife is reimbursed. He said the department will make certain that those responsible clean up the mess they have made and restore or replace the natural resources lost or injured.

“And we will prosecute to the full extent any violations of the law,” the attorney general said.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.



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