Gulf coast residents gathered outside a federal court in New Orleans on Monday as the trial against BP for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster—arguably the worst environmental calamity in US history—began inside.
BP, the U.S. government, and private plaintiffs failed to reach a last-minute settlement before the trial on Sunday, leading US district judge Carl Barbier to warn in opening proceedings that it would likely be a "lengthy trial".
Federal prosecutors opened with a "scathing attack" on the oil giant, Agence France-Presse reports, arguing that BP is guilty of deliberately cutting corners on normal safety procedures on the Deepwater rig—amounting to "gross negligence" and "willful misconduct".
A "gross negligence" ruling could mean fines closer to $17 billion for the company. However, BP's fines could be as low as $5 billion if prosecutors fail to make the case.
Meanwhile, environmental protesters camped outside the courthouse, urging the court to compel payment of the maximum penalties possible under the law.
"This is not just about something that's going to take decades to clean up," said Chris Canfield, vice president of Gulf of Mexico conservation and restoration for the National Audubon Society. "This is about making sure that bad actors are punished for a series of decisions that put profits ahead of people and the environment."
The civil trial at the federal courthouse in New Orleans is designed to determine the direct cause for the disaster, and how much oil was spilled. The court's authority to define the amount of spilled oil the company is responsible for will be used to calculate the size of environmental fines.
BP has previously settled thousands of lawsuits linked to the disaster out of court, including a $4.5 billion plea deal with the US government in which BP pleaded guilty to criminal charges and a $7.8 billion settlement with people and businesses affected by the spill.
Critics have said that BP's settlements pale in comparison to the decades of environmental and economic damage the company has caused.
"The Gulf Coast is still reeling, and people are still waiting for BP to be held accountable for the largest environmental disaster in our nation's history," said Canfield. "The people of the Gulf Coast don't feel justice has been served. There is much work to be done."