U.S. Sues BP, Others Over Gulf Oil Spill

The Justice Department on Wednesday filed the first federal lawsuit over the massive Gulf oil spill. Government lawyers have sued BP, Transocean and seven other corporate defendants. The companies are accused of taking short cuts on safety.

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This afternoon, the Justice Department filed the first federal lawsuit over the massive Gulf oil spill. Government lawyers have sued BP, Transocean and seven other corporate defendants.

As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, the companies are accused of taking shortcuts on safety.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Attorney General Eric Holder says today's lawsuit represents the beginning of a long legal fight. Justice Department lawyers have been working night and day, he says, to hold BP, Transocean and other companies accountable for the fiery explosion and the spill that followed.

Mr. ERIC HOLDER (U.S. Attorney General): While today's civil action marks a crucial first step forward, it is not, it is not a final step. Both our criminal and civil investigations are continuing, and our work to ensure that the American taxpayers are not forced to bear the costs of restoring the Gulf area and its economy goes on.

JOHNSON: The government civil case relies on two major environmental laws: the Oil Pollution Act, which allows it to recover clean up cost; and the Clean Water Act, which carries the promise of even higher financial rewards if the Obama administration can prove the companies acted with gross negligence or willful misconduct.

The lawsuit accuses the companies of failing to control the well, not using proper equipment and not paying enough attention to conditions on the rig and under the water. The Justice Department lawsuit doesn't ask for a specific amount of money.

Civil division chief Tony West explains why.

Mr. TONY WEST (Assistant Attorney General, Civil Division, Justice Department): It's going to take years to fully quantify what the damages are to the environment, to natural resources, any other economic damages. We've explicitly reserved in our complaint the right to come back and to add claims or to add defendants if necessary.

JOHNSON: Any money the federal government recovers usually goes into the U.S. Treasury.

Lisa Jackson leads the Environmental Protection Agency, and she says plans are under way to try and give some of that money back to Gulf communities.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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