The Obama administration is launching a criminal probe into the Deepwater Horizon oil spill Tuesday, and a top legal expert says it will have far-reaching legal tools at its disposal to use against BP.
Barry Hartman, who was the Justice Department’s lead prosecutor for the Exxon Valdez spill and is now a partner at K&L Gates, said the government enjoys “a tremendous arsenal of criminal laws” to criminally prosecute companies and their executives in spills like this one.
For instance, under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, if one migratory bird dies from an oil spill – whether it was an accident or not – the party that caused the death is guilty of a criminal misdemeanor.
“That already happened a long time ago,” Hartman said, noting that authorities are keeping animals killed by the spill in refrigerators to preserve them as evidence.
The government could use the Clean Water Act, which stipulates criminal misdemeanors for negligence and felonies for knowingly polluting in violation of the law.
There’s also the Refuse Act, which imposes criminal liability for unlawful pollution.
And the government can prosecute if any BP officials make false statements about the spill and its cleanup. President Obama already has alleged BP was not forthcoming about the dire nature of the spill.
Under federal law, which specific BP officials could be on the hook for jail time is governed by a legal concept known as the Responsible Corporate Officer doctrine.
Hartman said the doctrine is broad enough to allow the Obama administration to go fairly high up BP’s corporate ladder.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration plans to “vigorously enforce” the law against BP, and Obama hinted that could include criminal prosecutions.
“If our laws were broken, leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region,” Obama said Tuesday.
In 1991, Exxon settled with the government for $1 billion after the Justice Department charged the company with “one misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act, one misdemeanor violation of the Refuse Act, one misdemeanor violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, one felony violation of the Ports and Waterways Act and one felony violation of the Dangerous Cargo Act,” according to a DOJ press release.