April 2011: It's been nearly a year since the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Now, the Justice Department reportedly is considering filing criminal charges against companies and individuals responsible for the disaster. But these charges may be more serious than environmental crimes. They include charges of manslaughter for the deaths of the workers killed in the explosion.
The Justice Department is also said to be looking at possible perjury by BP executives in Congressional testimony.
Holding executives personally responsible for crimes may be very effective at preventing future tragedies. Holding companies criminally liable may cause more pain for innocent employees and owners. Holding anyone responsible will depend on the facts found in this continuing investigation.
Great damage occurs after an oil spill. The environment sometimes takes many years to fully recover. Animals in the wild are injured or killed. People that depend on the environment for jobs, such as fishermen, struggle with the loss of income by not being able to work. The BP oil spill, which occurred on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, is the largest in US history. It has affected millions of people.
Oil spills usually lead to the owner or operator of the drilling rig having to pay cleanup costs and civil damages. The money is used to help pay for the injuries to people and to the environment. However, criminal liability is another matter. Not every oil spill will involve criminal charges. What type of criminal liability could a company or individual responsible for an oil spill face?
Criminal liability for BP and related parties could arise from several areas. The US Justice Department ordered BP not to shred documents concerning the well blow out. Failure to comply could be criminal conduct. Making false statements to the federal government is a crime. Information given on drilling permit applications or in reports required to be filed under federal law may be sources.
Types of Oil Spill Criminal Laws
Criminal charges can be brought against a company for causing an oil spill under a number of laws. Some examples include:
The Clean Water Act is the main federal law that regulates water pollution in the US. It contains provisions about oil spill prevention, control and countermeasures. The act carries civil and criminal penalties for violations.
The Refuse Act is a federal law that covers illegal dumping in waterways. It prohibits the dumping of refuse into navigable waters except by permit. Violations of the act can lead to criminal prosecution.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a federal law that protects migratory birds. It makes it unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell them. The Act provides penalties for violations.
Becoming Criminally Liable for an Oil Spill
Criminal penalties are usually based on the amount of wrongdoing. Some laws don't require any proof of fault. The Refuse Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act have a strict liability standard. This means that the company is liable simply because an oil spill happened. It doesn't matter if the spill occurred accidentally or by intentional misconduct. The criminal penalties involve fines against the company.
Oil spills usually involve some type of negligence. This means that the company failed to act with the care that a reasonable company would have exercised under the same conditions. The Clean Water Act carries criminal fines for companies that are negligent.
The smaller criminal penalties normally involve violations called misdemeanors. These are considered low-level violations. A high-level violation is called a felony. Felonies typically carry larger fines or even prison terms.
Felonies are much more difficult to prove. Usually proof that the company knew it was violating federal regulations is needed. Making false statements in order to obtain drilling permits could also be considered a felony. E-mails and other forms of communications are examined to reveal the company's knowledge.
The government will also look at the company's actions after the oil spill. Tampering with evidence or obstructing justice can be considered felonies. The government may examine the behavior of the company after the fact to determine whether to bring criminal charges or not.
Criminal charges aren't usually brought against company executives. Individuals are rarely charged for crimes after an oil spill. However, prison terms have been given to executives in environmental pollution cases in the past.
Did It Know?
As if all that isn't enough for BP to handle, there are indications it knew weeks before the explosion there was a leak at the "blowout preventer." It's a key piece of equipment. It's supposed to seal the well in case of an emergency. If the claims are true, it's almost certain BP will face serious criminal charges. For example, if it let workers continue to work on the rig, ignoring the danger posed by the leak, it may be criminally liable for the deaths of 11 rig workers who died in the explosion.
In addition, it may be criminally liable for not reporting the leak to federal authorities, such as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (formerly the Mineral Management Service), as well as for not being prepared to prevent and respond to a spill as required by federal law.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Who should I contact if I am injured by an oil spill?
- Should I contact law enforcement if I believe an oil company is violating federal regulations?
- Should I have an attorney present when talking to law enforcement if I am an executive of an oil company involved in an oil spill?