Probe Demanded Into Shutdown of BP Alaska Oil Spill Case

For Immediate Release

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)
Contact: 

Beth McCollum (202) 265-7337

Probe Demanded Into Shutdown of BP Alaska Oil Spill Case

Senior EPA Agent Charges Criminal Investigation Truncated and Fines Slashed

WASHINGTON - The Inspector General of the U.S. Justice Department should
investigate whether the criminal prosecution of the largest oil spill
in the history of Alaska's North Slope was improperly blunted,
according to a complaint filed yesterday by Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility (PEER). PEER lodged the complaint on
behalf of Scott West, the Special Agent-in-Charge with the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency assigned to the case who retired in
frustration last week.

In March 2006, a major pipeline leak went undetected for days,
spilling a quarter-million gallons of oil on the Alaskan tundra. The
spill occurred because the pipeline operator, British Petroleum (BP),
ignored its own workers' warnings by neglecting critical maintenance to
cut costs. The spill sparked congressional hearings and a large
federal-state investigation. Despite the outcry, in a settlement
announced in late October 2007, BP agreed to one misdemeanor charge
carrying three-year probation and a total of only $20 million in
penalties (a $12 million fine with $8 million in restitution and
compensatory payments).

The settlement resulted from a sudden U.S. Justice Department August
2007 decision to wrap up the case, according to West. That precipitous
shutdown meant -

  • Felony charges would not be pursued
    and the agreement foreclosed any future prosecutions. No BP executive
    faced any criminal liability for a spill second in size only to the
    Exxon Valdez;
  • The fines proposed by Justice (to
    which BP immediately agreed) were only a fraction of what was legally
    required under the Alternative Fines Act. EPA had calculated the
    appropriate fine levels as several times what Justice offered BP -
    ranging from $58 million to $672 million, depending upon the economic
    assumptions; and
  • The BP Alaska settlement is
    part of a pattern of "lowball" corporate public safety and pollution
    settlements engineered by the Bush Justice Department. In that October
    2007 settlement package, Justice asked for only $50 million in fines
    for the BP Texas refinery explosion in which 15 people died - penalties
    not carrying strong deterrent value for a big multi-national
    corporation.

In a statement submitted by PEER to the Inspector General, West said:

"Never ...have I had a significant environmental
criminal case shut down by the political arm of the Department of
Justice, nor have I had a case declined by the Department of Justice
before I had been fully able to investigate the case. This is
unprecedented in my experience."

By asking for an Inspector General investigation, PEER is hoping to
produce Justice Department policies which stiffen future prosecutions
of corporate criminals, as well as determining whether the White House
exercised any influence in inducing a quick resolution on terms
favorable to BP.

"Occupational fatalities and pollution blowouts cannot be sanctioned so
lightly that they are an acceptable cost of doing business," stated
PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "A full autopsy of this case must be
done to determine what killed the tough felony prosecution of a major
environmental crime."

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Read the statement of EPA Special Agent-in-Charge Scott West

See the PEER complaint to the DOJ-OIG

Look at the EPA calculation of appropriate fines

View a case assessment by the U.S. Attorney

 

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