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BP pleads guilty to manslaughter in 2010 gulf oil spill

January 29, 2013|By Michael Muskal
  • The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in the Gulf of Mexico after an explosion in 2010. A U.S. judge approved an agreement for British oil giant BP to plead guilty to manslaughter charges in the death of 11 workers.
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in the Gulf of Mexico after an explosion… (Gerald Herbet / Associated…)

A federal judge in New Orleans accepted an agreement for BP to plead guilty to manslaughter and other charges and pay a record fine in connection with the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which ranks as one of the nation’s worst environmental disasters.

The agreement, announced in November, allowed a unit of the London-based oil giant to plead guilty Tuesday to 11 counts of seaman’s manslaughter in connection with the explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the gulf. The company also entered a guilty plea to one felony count of obstruction of Congress and two environmental misdemeanors.

The company was fined $4 billion in connection with the spill and was given five years’ probation.

Tuesday’s court action ends the company’s current criminal issues, but is just one step in the ongoing proceedings related to the disaster. Four current or former BP employees have been indicted on criminal charges. BP has separately agreed to a $7.8-billion settlement with lawyers representing Gulf Coast residents and businesses and could be assessed more than $17 billion under the Clean Water Act.

“Today’s guilty plea and sentencing represent a significant step forward in the Justice Department’s ongoing efforts to seek justice on behalf of those affected by one of the worst environmental disasters in American history,” Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement. “I’m pleased to note that more than half of this landmark resolution -- which totals $4 billion in penalties and fines and represents the single largest criminal resolution ever -- will help to provide direct support to Gulf Coast residents as communities throughout the region continue to recover and rebuild.”

At the hearing, BP again apologized for the deaths and for the spill.

“We -- and by that I mean the men and the women of the management of BP, its board of directors and its many employees -- are deeply sorry for the tragic loss of the 11 men who died and the others who were injured that day,” Luke Keller, a vice president of BP America Inc., said in a statement. “Our guilty plea makes clear BP understands and acknowledges its role in that tragedy, and we apologize -- BP apologizes -- to all those injured and especially to the families of the lost loved ones. BP is also sorry for the harm to the environment that resulted from the spill, and we apologize to the individuals and communities who were injured.”

U.S. District Judge Sarah S. Vance in New Orleans called the agreement a reasonable disposition of the case. Before she ruled, she heard from relatives of some of the 11 workers who died on the Deepwater Horizon when the Macondo oil well blew out on April 20, 2010.

“I've heard and I truly understand your feelings and the losses you suffered,” she said.

Billy Anderson, whose 35-year-old son, Jason, of Midfield, Texas, died in the blast, recalled the trauma of watching the disaster play out on television.

“These men suffered a horrendous death,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “They were basically cremated alive and not at their choice.”

According to the Justice Department, Vance found, “among other things, that the consequential fines imposed under the plea agreement far exceed any imposed in U.S. history, and are structured so that BP will feel the full brunt of the penalties. She also noted that the agreement provides just punishment and significant deterrence, requiring detailed drilling safeguards, monitors and other stringent, special conditions of probation so that BP’s future conduct will be closely watched.”

About $2.4 billion is earmarked for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and will go for restoration and preservation of systems damaged by the spill. An additional $350 million will go to the National Academy of Sciences for research, the Justice Department said.

BP agreed to pay nearly $1.3 billion in fines, the largest such penalty in U.S. history, surpassing a $1.2-billion fine against drug maker Pfizer in 2009. It also received five years' probation, the maximum term. The company is also required to have a safety and risk management monitor and an independent auditor. It will also have to have an ethics monitor to ensure full candor with the government.

Those still awaiting trial include BP rig supervisors Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, who are charged with manslaughter and are accused of disregarding abnormal high-pressure readings. David Rainey, BP's former vice president of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico, was charged with withholding information from Congress about the amount of oil that was pouring out of the well into the gulf. Former BP engineer Kurt Mix was charged with deleting text messages about the company's spill response.

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