Gulf Coast residents and environmentalists demanded accountability on the part of BP as a New Orleans court on Tuesday commenced the penalty phase of the years-long trial for the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history.
The oil giant faces up to $14 billion in fines for the "gross negligence" that caused the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, which killed 11 people and dumped more than 300 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The third and final phase of the government's civil trial will determine how much BP owes in pollution fines under the Clean Water Act. In September, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier ruled that BP was culpable for the disaster and was "grossly negligent" in its actions. Last week, Barbier ruled that a total of 3.19 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf from the failed Macondo well, exposing BP to up to $13.7 billion in fines.
Environmental groups say that it is the government's obligation to hold BP accountable for its crime.
"Now that the court has determined the volume of the spill and found that BP's actions were grossly negligent, it is time that BP accept responsibility," said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. "The Gulf has waited long enough."
O'Mara continued: "Eleven men died, countless wildlife species are impacted and miles of coastal wetlands are degraded, all because the oil giant put profits ahead of safety. While it will likely be decades before we fully comprehend the extent of damage to wildlife, we do know that nearly five years after the explosion, dolphins are dying in high numbers, sea turtles are failing to nest, and oyster production remains low."
In a press statement, Kara Lankford, Ocean Conservancy’s interim director of the Gulf Restoration Program, said that she hopes BP will be charged with the maximum fines. "It is time for BP to make it right in the Gulf, so that we can begin the full restoration process," Lankford said.
Lankford added that funding must be "made available to monitor the Gulf ecosystem and to restore the offshore environment where the oil disaster began," and that the final court order must provide a "transparent decision-making process so that the public can participate in restoring the Gulf."
Should BP be forced to pay the maximum penalty, it would amount to the largest fine levied by the government for an environmental disaster. However, environmentalists agree it is still insufficient to cover the human and ecological loss.
David Pettit, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Times-Picayune that civil trial is the "biggest test of the Clean Water Act and its penalty provisions." The trial, he said, has shown that the law "has the teeth needed to deter future spills."