New Orleans — Metro area government officials and members of the area’s congressional delegation reacted to BP’s record criminal fine for the Macondo oil well blowout as just punishment, but they are clearly looking ahead to upcoming civil penalties to address the damage done by the 2010 disaster.
In addition to indicting three BP employees for negligence or obstruction, the settlement announced Thursday in New Orleans by U.S. Attorney Eric Holder involves $4.5 billion in penalties and fines, including a $1.25 billion criminal fine.
Gov. Bobby Jindal said that the largest criminal fine in history is fitting for the “ inexcusable negligence that led to this disaster.’’
“The Department of Justice must continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Louisiana to aggressively fight for the full recovery of the Gulf.’’ saod Jindal, who cited the spill’s impact on the fishing industry. “The majority of BP’s liability remains outstanding, and we will hold them fully accountable,’’ he said.
Jefferson Parish President John Young stressed that residents in Grand Isle are still finding tar balls on their beaches, and commercial fishermen in Lafitte, Barataria and Crown Point have not fully recovered from the oil spills impact. He said the criminal fines are just the tip of the iceberg.
“This is just the start. The damages far exceed that amount of money,” Young said. “They need to make it right. They haven’t made it right despite their commercials.”
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called the settlement announcement “an important step forward in holding BP accountable for the tragic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that occurred over two years ago.’’
Landrieu pointed out that many in the fishing and oil and gas communities are “still building back after suffering tremendous economic and personal loss from this incident.’’He said he’s encouraged that $1.2 billion from the criminal settlement will be dedicated to vital wetlands and coastal restoration here in Louisiana.”
St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister is also focused on the civil penalties. “‘With the settlement of the criminal fine, we are one step closer to realizing the benefits set aside for St. Tammany Parish and others that were deeply affected by this man-made disaster,’’ she said.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., predicted a much larger settlement for civil penalties in the near future. “I think this criminal settlement helps to lay the groundwork for the next settlement,” Landrieu said Thursday of the “very, very robust” criminal penalties.
Landrieu said she hopes the civil case, scheduled to go to court in February, is settled soon without a lengthy court battle.
“At least for Louisiana, we really need this money now,” she said.
Landrieu said she is optimistic the settlement appears to mirror the “spirit” of the RESTORE Act legislation she sponsored that was signed into law earlier this year by President Barack Obama. That legislation directs 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines to the five states affected by the spill, an amount that could reach $20 billion.
Landrieu also credited the “unique and creative approach” of funneling most of the money through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which can leverage the funds for additional matches from the private sector.
Landrieu also said she is pleased Thursday’s settlement specifically reads that it cannot have any effect or minimize the civil case.
Likewise, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., also praised Thursday’s agreement, but he expressed caution going forward.
“With these unprecedented criminal penalties assessed, I urge the Obama administration to be equally aggressive in securing civil monies that can help save our Louisiana coast through the RESTORE Act and NRDA,” Vitter said in a prepared statement. “I certainly hope they didn’t trade any of those monies away just to nail this criminal scalp to the wall.”
Several members of the Louisiana House delegation also expressed their cautious optimism, including Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, who helped lead the RESTORE Act process on the House side.
“The Department of Justice must hold BP fully accountable as they continue negotiating civil penalties that will be divided among the Gulf Coast States under the RESTORE Act, and this admission of criminal guilt by BP should make it clear that Clean Water Act civil fines served against them should be the highest allowed by law,” Scalise stated.
“The value and fragility of Louisiana’s coast cannot be underestimated,” he added. “Because of the RESTORE Act, the lion’s share of BP Clean Water Act fines will be dedicated to the Gulf Coast states once a civil settlement is reached, and it’s incumbent upon the DOJ to ensure that any civil settlement reached matches the high level of damaged sustained by our coastal marshes and wetlands.”
The two congressmen who will represent Baton Rouge – Reps. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, and Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, also weighed in.
“Although this is a large settlement, no amount of money can compensate for the economic and environmental destruction that this spill caused,” Cassidy stated. “While this settlement closes one chapter, we must still focus on holding BP and the other responsible parties accountable and returning the families, businesses and ecosystems of the Gulf Coast to health and prosperity.”
“I hope that the settlement of criminal charges will bring a small measure of closure to the families of those who perished that tragic day,” Richmond added. “The fines and guilty pleas secured by the Department of Justice should send a clear message to those we entrust to drill off our shores to do so in a safe and prudent manner. The oil and gas exploration is safer today, and I look forward to working with all stakeholders to make drilling safer and more efficient while continuing to reduce any environmental effects.”
Coastal environmental groups also were quick to weigh in on the settlement.
“BP still needs to answer for their gross negligence and these record criminal penalties are a step forward, but do not pay for the damage BP has done,” said Bethany Kraft, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Gulf Restoration Program.
Gulf Restoration Network Communications Director Dan Favre said he is optimistic the settlement will harden the Justice Department’s resolve on securing the maximum civil penalties.
“BP’s oil disaster continues in the Gulf – from oil still in the marshes to science showing impacts at almost every level of the food chain – and the full impacts will still take years to determine,” Favre stated. “While this criminal plea is welcome good news in the fight to hold BP accountable, the Department of Justice and BP should not prematurely settle claims for too little under the Clean Water Act or under the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, which is in place to ensure BP pays full price for repairing the environmental damage their oil has done.”
This story was reported by Jordan Blum of The Advocate’s Washington bureau, and Allen Powell II and Sara Pagones of the New Orleans bureau.
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