The Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit Wednesday in New Orleans against the oil giant BP and eight other companies over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Seeking civil penalties under the Clean Water Act as well as a second federal statue for clean-up costs and widespread environmental damage, the lawsuit accuses BP and other firms of violating federal regulations and failing to prevent the April 20 explosion and fire, which destroyed the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig.
Although the Justice Department did not spell out an amount, legal experts said the case could expose the companies to tens of billions of dollars in fines, under civil environmental laws. Justice officials emphasized that the filing - on the day of a deadline for civil filings - is a first step and that aggressive civil and criminal probes into the disaster are continuing.
"Even though the spill has been contained, even though it is no longer the focus of round-the-clock news coverage and the subject of front-page headlines," said Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. at a news conference Wednesday, "the department's focus on investigating this disaster, and preventing future devastation, has not wavered."
Other companies involved in the spill and named in the lawsuit affixed much of the blame on BP. Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Transocean, which leased the Deepwater Horizon rig to BP, said: "Responsibility for oil and natural gas discharged from a well lies solely with the well's owner and operator. . . . Transocean is indemnified in this matter."
John Christiansen, a spokesman for Anadarko Petroleum Corp., a minority owner of the well, said the company was "not involved in the operations or decisions that occurred on the drilling rig." MOEX Offshore, another minority owner, said in a statement that it had "no authority or responsibility to direct activities on the Deepwater Horizon."
The Justice Department civil probe is on a parallel track with a criminal investigation that Holder said is "very serious." Law enforcement officials and other sources have said the criminal investigation is focusing on BP, Transocean and engineering giant Halliburton, which was in charge of cementing the well.