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With anger building by the day over that oil spill in the Gulf, the Obama administration is facing pressure to launch a criminal investigation into one of the country's worst environmental disasters. But the administration is being very careful not to distract oil giant BP from priority one, which is plugging up that hole that's oozing the oil. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON: Federal investigators are engaging in a delicate balancing act. They want to learn what went wrong at the oil rig, but they need the same companies at the heart of the disaster to stop the gusher. Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking recently on the ABC show "This Week," addressed the issue gingerly.
Mr. ERIC HOLDER (U.S. Attorney General): I have sent down representatives from the Justice Department to examine what our options are with regard to the activities that occurred there and whether or not there has been misfeasance, malfeasance, on the part of BP or Oceana.
JOHNSON: But two federal sources tell NPR that prosecutors aren't going to issue subpoenas or send agents to conduct interviews until the immediate crisis ends. Instead, authorities are asking BP, Transocean and Halliburton to preserve documents about the deep sea operation.
Top prosecutors in the Gulf states are monitoring the rig and the cleanup. And the Justice Department's civil division and environmental unit have visited the site. Eventually the FBI and agents from the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department will span out in search of clues.
As one U.S. official says, quote: "Every bit of the focus is on stopping this thing." End quote.
Congressional Democrats have urged the Justice Department to launch a full-blown criminal probe. Lawmakers are asking Justice to find out whether BP gave false assurances about its ability to handle a disaster.
But Holder says they have to balance competing priorities.
Mr. HOLDER: Our primary concern at this point is try to make sure that we keep that oil off-shore, that we disperse it, that we scoop it up, that we burn it, that we do all those kinds of things so that it can't get to shore.
The incident in the Gulf is much bigger and more complicated than the Exxon Valdez oil spill two decades ago.
Exxon pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act and other charges. The company ultimately coughed up more than a billion dollars in criminal and civil penalties.
David Uhlmann is the former chief of the Justice Department's environmental crimes unit. He says investigators could use the Clean Water Act and other laws in a possible negligence case.
But Uhlmann says the government also needs the companies to cooperate, and that's a different scenario than this year's Massey mining disaster in West Virginia. There, FBI agents spanned out immediately to interview miners about safety lapses.
Mr. DAVID UHLMANN (Former Justice Department Official): The Massey case was somewhat more self-contained. The tragedy occurred and the government was able to quickly shift into full investigative mode.
JOHNSON: For now, officials at Justice hesitate even to say whether they have uncovered any signs of negligence at the oil rig.
Here's Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama quizzing DOJ's Tom Perrelli about the case.
Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): To what extent is the FBI involved in that?
Mr. TOM PERRELLI (U.S. Justice Department): Senator, I cannot comment on any contemplated or pending investigation.
JOHNSON: Meanwhile, BP is conducting its own investigation. In a statement, BP says a number of companies are involved and it's too early to say who's at fault.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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