In Gulf Oil Spill Trial, Testimony Cites Series Of Missteps

This was the first week of testimony in a civil case to assign blame and financial liability for the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico.

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And in another courtroom this week, a picture emerged of a tragic offshore accident that could have been prevented. It was the first week of testimony in a civil case to assign blame and financial liability for the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. NPR's Debbie Elliott was in New Orleans and has this report.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Oil giant BP and its contractors are defending a complicated mix of civil claims brought by the U.S. Justice Department, Gulf states, and individuals and businesses harmed in the worst oil disaster in U.S. history. In testimony this week, witnesses described a series of missteps and system failures that led to the deadly well blowout.

KEITH JONES: Every one of which was done to save money or to save time. Every one of which made it a little more likely that this blowout was going to happen until finally it did.

ELLIOTT: That's Keith Jones. His son Gordon Jones was one of the 11 men killed when the Deepwater Horizon exploded.

JONES: It's nice now to start hearing the testimony that I knew was coming and will be coming over the next three months so that the public can find out all the things that were done wrong, not just by BP, but also by Transocean and by Halliburton as well.

ELLIOTT: BP owned and operated the well; Transocean owned and staffed the Deepwater drilling rig; and Halliburton did the cement job that was supposed to plug the well. The case has each of the companies pitted against one another as well defending themselves. BP's attorneys won't discuss the case outside of the courtroom. But during the trial, they acknowledged mistakes were made, including a misread well pressure test. But they also said contractors, including Transocean, share responsibility. Transocean spokesman Brian Kennedy admits the drill crew made some mistakes but says BP bears ultimate responsibility for not sharing critical information about the troubled well with Transocean workers.

BRIAN KENNEDY: To suggest that the people who lost their lives that night, who didn't have the information that perhaps they should have had to do their jobs, that they somehow callously and wantonly acted in a fashion that would cost them their lives is just frankly absurd.

ELLIOTT: Words like callously and wantonly come into play here because a key question for U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier is whether there was gross negligence. That would significantly increase penalties available under the Clean Water Act. Environmentalists want the harshest penalties possible given the toll on fisheries and wildlife and Gulf Coast economies. David Muth is director of Mississippi River Delta Restoration with National Wildlife Federation.

DAVID MUTH: It's a question of what level of fine under the Clean Water Act sends the right message. And when you have a company that is taking 20 to 30 billion dollars a year in profits, a small fine does not seem to be enough.

ELLIOTT: Penalties could range from four to nearly 19 billion dollars under the Clean Water Act alone. And then there's the question of how much BP should pay to restore damage to natural resources. Muth says that should be substantial given the lingering impact of the spill.

MUTH: There is still oil, oil mats sitting off the Gulf Coast, off the coast of Louisiana, coast of Alabama. It washes in on every storm. We know there are still oiled shorelines. So, our best estimate is the damage is incredibly serious.

ELLIOTT: Even as testimony got started, there were reports of a settlement in the works. No one will talk publicly about where those talks stand. But Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange says given the evidence that's coming out in the trial, there's new incentive for BP to strike a deal.

LUTHER STRANGE: I frankly think the fact we've spent all this time preparing for trial and are ready to go to trial and have presented what I think is an overwhelmingly strong case can only strengthen us in our negotiations for settlement if and when that opportunity arises.

ELLIOTT: For Keith Jones, whose son Gordon was killed on the rig, an out-of-court settlement would be disappointing.

JONES: I want the truth to come out. And the most efficient way I know for the truth to come out is up in that courtroom.

ELLIOTT: Testimony is scheduled to resume on Monday. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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