The Defense Rests, but We Can’t

The first phase of the “Environmental Trial of the Century” ended this week after BP lawyers finished presenting its defense. The end of the first phase came nearly three years to the day that the Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing eleven men and spilling over 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. U.S. District Court Judge Barbier will determine the portion of liability among BP, Transocean, and Halliburton following this phase of the trial. Unless there is a settlement, the next phase of the trial will determine the amount of damages each company must pay.Overview of the TrialThe Oil Pollution Act of 1990 is the main federal law that imposes liability for the damage caused by the BPs Oil Disaster, and similar disasters. While that law limits the amount of damages BP could pay to $10 billion, there is no limit to the damages if the judge finds BP was “grossly negligent” or there was “willful misconduct” in the operation of its oil operation. “Gross negligence” means there was a conscious and voluntary disregard of the need to use reasonable care, which is likely to cause foreseeable injury to people or property. During the trial, which began on February 25, BP’s strategy was to put as much blame on the other companies involved in the disaster as they could, in order to avoid a ruling that it was “grossly negligent,” but rather contributory negligence by Halliburton and Transocean. Halliburton, the company that provided cement casing, and Transocean, the company that owned the oil rig, both put the blame on BP and each other. None of the three companies took responsibility for their actions.Evidence showed that BP put Profits over Safety. Later evidence showed that BP, when evaluating the risks associated with the well’s blowout preventer, only considered the risk of “nonproductive time” if something happened. The blowout preventer is an important safety mechanism for the well; the metaphorical “last line of defense” against a well blowout.Further, BP accused Halliburton of destroying cement samples. Those samples may have showed that the cement casing for the Macondo well was too thin and contributed to the well blowout. Experts also testified that Halliburton was responsible for providing cement that failed to set properly and that both parties were responsible for failing to communicate with each other.Transocean was also the subject of blame during the trial. From Transocean’s reports, an expert witness for BP identified several pieces of vital safety equipment that were long overdue for inspection and maintenance purposes; violating the International Safety Management Code and common sense. Here is a non-exhaustive list:” life raft renewal: 159 days overdue” regulators in ventilation dampers: 453 days overdue” replace shaft seal on ballast pump: 165 days overdue” rebuild Southwest service pump: 207 days overdue” replace parts for saltwater service pump number 3: 168 days overdue” thruster service: 121 days overdue” main engine checks: 119 days overdueAnd the list went on and on. The testifying expert recognized all of these as important safety issues. Additionally, the Deepwater Horizon rig had not been at a dry dock for nine years. Dry docks are used for the maintenance and repair of ships, but having the rig at one would mean lost hours and profit for Transocean. There was also confusion over Transocean’s policy maintaining two separate leadership positions at different times, which violated federal law and led to a delay in the implementation of emergency procedures.What This Trial Means and How You Can HelpIn a larger context, this trial serves as a reminder to everyone that offshore drilling is dangerous, and that corporate policies that put profits over safety often end in jeopardizing both. Many of the effects of the BP Oil disaster are still unknown. However, we do know that after three years, the oil is still here and the marine ecology and the environment of the Gulf of Mexico remain threatened by the disaster. The RESTORE Act directs 80% of the fines that the parties end up paying to help restore the Gulf Coast. How much BP and the others involved pay is still to be determined.The Gulf Restoration Network has responded to the BP Disaster by monitoring impacts caused by the oil Disaster, keeping the story alive, and leading environmental and community groups to present specific demands to Congress and the Obama administration that will help restore the coast and protect marine and coastal ecology.To commemorate the three-year memorial of the BP Oil Disaster, the Gulf Restoration Network asks that you join us tomorrow, Saturday April 19, for a rally to remind the nation that the BP disaster continues to affect our gulf and to hold BP accountable. The rally begins at 1 pm at the Washington Artillery Park Amphitheatre across from Jackson Square. Please wear black. The first 100 folks to show up will get a #MakeBPpay tee shirt. You can RSVP here.This guest blog is by legal intern Steven Rothermel, a third year law student at Tulane who has been part of GRN’s legal observer team for the BP trialPhoto above: Chef Susan Spicer (Bayona, Mondo restaurants) speaks at a coalition press conference outside the final days of the BP trial. Said Spicer, “Our cuisine, culture and economy are all dependent on a thriving, healthy Gulf. That means we’ve all got a stake in holding BP accountable and ensuring effective restoration begins as soon as possible.” Credit: Gulf Restoration Network

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