Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles — The Justice Department signaled Tuesday that it may sue BP and other oil firms involved in the massive Gulf of Mexico spill for violating federal environmental laws, actions that could ultimately lead to heavy civil fines against the companies.
If federal laws were found to have been deliberately broken, authorities could file federal criminal or civil charges against the companies, Justice Department officials said.
"As we have said from the beginning, we are committed to ensuring that those responsible clean up the mess they made, restore or replace the natural resources lost or injured in this tragedy, and repay every cent of taxpayer money," said Hannah August, a Justice Department spokeswoman.
Government lawyers filed an eight-page legal document Monday evening to U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans, outlining the government's responsibilities for prosecuting any violations of federal law after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 workers and spewed an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the gulf.
Barbier will be presiding over about 300 separate civil lawsuits for economic damages and wrongful deaths in the wake of the disaster.
Elizabeth Ashford, a BP spokeswoman, said the company "doesn't have a comment at this time" about the Justice Department action. But the companies have pledged repeatedly to clean up the spill, restore the environment and pay restitution to business owners and residents hurt by the spill.
The government's action serves as a placeholder, informing Barbier that the Obama administration will probably file suit on behalf of the American public. In August, a panel of federal judges assigned Barbier to oversee the morass of litigation stemming from the oil spill, with the aim of avoiding time-consuming and costly duplication among the cases. Barbier will hold his first hearing in New Orleans on Thursday.
Justice Department officials made it clear that they are pursuing possible violations of the federal Oil Pollution Act and the Clean Water Act. A team of top prosecutors and FBI agents has been scouring the gulf coast for several months, attempting to determine whether company officials misled Congress on how quickly it could clean up a spill of this magnitude.
"The United States has a unique role in civil enforcement matters arising from oil spills," Assistant Atty. Gen. Tony West said in court papers. He cited the Oil Pollution Act, passed by Congress in 1990 after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, that makes companies liable for damages in environmental spills. In addition, the Clean Water Act authorizes the government to seek civil penalties ranging from $1,100 to $4,300 for each barrel of oil that is spilled.
In its filing, the government has proposed a separate track for its lawsuit, apart from private litigants including fishermen, tourism operators and others harmed by the spill.
Charlie Tebbutt, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said he objected to a separate government track that did not include public-interest groups such as his own. His organization is seeking $19 billion in damages under the Clean Water Act.
"The potential downside is that if the government feels they should proceed on their own track, there may be information they decide not to make publicly available that should be," Tebbutt said, referring to the federal investigations into potential civil and criminal liability of the oil companies. "One of our jobs is to make sure all information gets to the public."
But Richard Frank, an environmental law professor at UC Berkeley, said the government's separate-track proposal doesn't necessarily conflict with the public interest.
"As long as the federal litigation is overseen by the same judge and he can coordinate to the extent he deems appropriate, that should address the need for judicial economy and efficiency," said Frank, noting that responsibility for recovering the costs of responding to the spill and countering its effects on the environment lies with the federal government.
Fadel Gheit, a senior energy analyst for Oppenheimer and Co., said that any government case could backfire politically against the Obama administration. He estimated BP could be fined a maximum of $2.9 billion, and that could trigger layoffs, including job losses among the 30,000 BP employees in the U.S.
But Phil Weiss, an analyst with Argus Research, said BP had taken steps to prepare for potentially high fines, and he doubted the firm would have to pay the full amount.
"They are not blameless," he said. "But there are probably enough of a number of other factors involved that they won't be found grossly negligent."
Serrano reported from the Washington and Williams from Los Angeles.
Times staff writer Ronald D. White contributed to this report.