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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
Today, a federal judge in New Orleans hears from witnesses to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A civil trial of BP opened yesterday in a case to determine blame and financial liability for the environmental disaster that was the worst disaster in U.S. history.
INSKEEP: NPR's Debbie Elliott covered that disaster as a reporter, and is now covering the trial. She was in the courtroom yesterday. Debbie, good morning.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what did it feel like to be in that courtroom as things finally began?
ELLIOTT: You know, it was long-awaited for many on the Gulf, and a lot of people didn't think it would happen, that they might settle first. We understand talks are underway. But everybody was in the courtroom yesterday. You know, there are a lot of parties here. We heard eight opening statements, 370 minutes worth of them. On one side, you've got the U.S. Justice Department, Gulf Coast States and private plaintiffs. And on the other side, you have BP and all of its contractors who worked on that well.
INSKEEP: OK, so what's the government's case?
ELLIOTT: Attorney Mike Underhill represented the Department of Justice, and he outlined this long series of what he called reckless decisions by BP that led to the well blowout and the ensuing disaster in the Gulf, actions he says amounted to willful misconduct and gross negligence. Both the federal and the state governments painted this picture of this giant oil company - and some of the companies that worked with it - who were putting profit and production and doing things fast over safety protocols, decisions made at the very highest levels of the company that made the oil spill both predictable and preventable.
Here's Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange outside the courthouse after making his opening statement. He says it was greed that devastated the Gulf.
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INSKEEP: Although proving that corporate culture is a particular way has got to be a challenge in a courtroom. So what is BP's defense and the defense of BP's contractors?
ELLIOTT: Well, you know, at the moment, they're all pointing fingers at one another. Attorney Robert Brock is who represented BP in this trial, and in opening statements, he acknowledged that missteps were made. People made bad decisions here. But he characterized it as multi-party, multi-causal, you know, actions, things that everybody was involved and many reasons for this horrific outcome, but none of them amounting to intentional or willful misconduct. BP was the well operator, he said, but not the dictator.
And he started painting a picture of some of the contractors - for instance, rig owner Transocean. He said it was that company's responsibility to act on early signs that there were problems with the well: kicks that were indicating that oil was actually coming up the drill pipe, and that the crew should have acted to shut things down before the deadly explosion.
Now, when Transocean was up, Transocean made the argument, no, wait a minute. That was BP's job. Lawyer Brad Brian even went so far to say that, you know, Transocean workers put their trust in BP and were betrayed.
And then if you remember, Steve, there was that blowout preventer that everyone made such a big deal about. The company...
INSKEEP: Could never forget it.
ELLIOTT: ...yeah. Cameron International said, you know, don't blame our equipment. It's a blowout preventer. It's not a blowout stopper. It's kind of like putting on the brakes after an accident has already begun.
INSKEEP: Is it still possible...
ELLIOTT: So there's a lot to sort out.
INSKEEP: Is it still possible they could put the brakes on this lawsuit, that there could be a settlement?
ELLIOTT: You know, I think so. Observers say, you know, they expect this happen. Talks are underway and continue, even as people are presenting their cases in court. But publicly, the lawyers on all sides are still saying they have a very strong case to get on the record here.
Now, that said, environmentalists who have been really pushing hard for the government to hold BP accountable for both the current damage and future damage to the Gulf, they understand a settlement would mean getting resolution and getting money flowing to the Gulf a little bit sooner.
I spoke about that with David Muth. He's director of the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Program for the National Wildlife Federation.
DAVID MUTH: The beauty of the settlement is that instead of waiting for five, 10, 15 years of endless rounds of appeals, the money goes to work to fix the problem that was created as quickly as possible.
ELLIOTT: You know, a problem that is ongoing and we'll start to hear about what happened today as the first witnesses are up. We're going to hear - including a BP executive who will be on the witness stand.
INSKEEP: OK. Debbie, thanks very much.
ELLIOTT: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott, covering a civil trial of BP in New Orleans.
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