British oil company BP agreed on November 16 to pay $4.5 billion in penalties for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, pleading guilty to 14 criminal charges stemming from one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.
Two years ago, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf, killing 11 people, poisoning the water with 4.9 million barrels of crude oil, and causing irreversible environmental damage. The aftermath alone has cost fisherman endless grief, hurting the shrimp and oyster businesses and, for those that live in the bayou, upending their entire way of life. And yet, for two years, BP refused to take responsibility for its actions.
Now, the blame game is over, and the corporation could soon owe as much as $21 billion in pollution fines for gross negligence under the Clean Water Act.
The current fine of $4.5 billion will be paid over the course of five years by BP, and includes $1.256 billion in criminal fines, $2.394 billion to go to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and $350 million to go to the National Academy of Sciences. The U.S. Department of Justice has also filed charges against three BP employees in connection with the disaster. Overall, this case marks one of the largest criminal fines the United States has ever slapped on a mega-corporation.
The money going to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will be very important in restoring and preserving the marine and coastal environments - and bird and wildlife habitat - in the areas affected by the BP oil spill. Though it doesn't lessen the harm done to animals exposed to the crude, it is certainly a big step forward.
"This is unprecedented," said attorney general Eric Holder at a New Orleans news conference yesterday. "Both with regard to the amounts of money, the fact that a company has been criminally charged, and the fact that individuals have been criminally charged as well.
"The [over] $4 billion in penalties and fines is the single largest criminal resolution in the history of the United States, and constitutes a major achievement toward fulfilling a promise that the Justice Department made nearly two years ago to respond to the consequences of this epic environmental disaster and seek justice on behalf of its victims."
Many of those victims, notably, are still seeking that justice, as an independent auditor found this year that BP's compensation fund had wrongly denied or underpaid some 7,300 claimants, and utterly rejected 2,600 others. Because of that, the Justice Department in April announced that $64 million in payments would be coming to 7,300 Louisiana residents and businesses.
Fishermen and other workers were not surprised by the audit's findings. Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, remarked, "They weren't paying the claims, and still today we got people with interim claims that are months old now. It's always the same thing: 'It's under review.'"
Situations like that, and BP's initial efforts to cover up the severity of the spill in 2010, merely add insult to injury for those whose lives were ripped apart by this disaster.
Oyster farmer and union electrician Eric Guzman told the People's World that things are still pretty rough. "Only now are we seeing a few signs that oysters might come back. But even today, [BP] have not really made people whole for their losses. Some got back percentages of their losses, and some have gotten nothing."
"The explosion of the rig was a disaster that resulted from BP's culture of privileging profit over prudence," said assistant attorney general Lanny A. Breuer of the Justice Department's criminal division. "We hope that BP's acknowledgement of its misconduct - through its agreement to plead guilty to 11 counts of felony manslaughter - brings some measure of justice to the family members of the people who died onboard that rig."
When all is said and done, however, many realize that even a penalty this historical and impressive in stature, is for BP but a mere slap on the wrist. Workers are still angry, and victims still seek justice for what has been done.
"This settlement is [just] a good down-payment on what the company should ultimately pay," said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. The environmental group argues that BP still ought to pay tens of billions more for what it has done.
Greenpeace, too, called the penalty "chump change" - a fine that would by no means give the merciless oil giant any incentive to be more careful in the future, or to put an end to its greedy, underhanded schemes. The group pointed out that the $4.5 billion fine is merely half of what the Shell oil company spent in its attempts to drill in the Arctic.
Greenpeace activist John Hocevar remarked, "The price of one sperm whale in the Gulf is immeasurable. And we still don't know the full ecological story behind the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. This settlement buys off further government silence about the potential impacts. This is simply BP trying to buy its way out of responsibility."
David M. Uhlmann, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program, praised the fact that the deaths of the workers onboard Deepwater Horizon were emphasized, and that the corporation is finally being held accountable. But, like the NWF and Greenpeace, he acknowledged the issues this raised, stating, "There are questions that could be asked about why the investigation took so long, whether the fine should have been larger, and why BP was given five years to pay its penalties, which normally occurs only when a defendant does not have sufficient financial resources to make immediate payment."
BP made $5.4 billion altogether in July, August, and September 2012 alone - that's $1 billion more than the criminal settlement. After the seemingly endless havoc felt in the wake of such an incredibly devastating oil spill, most environmental groups and victims agree: BP can definitely afford to pay much, much more.
Photo: The Deepwater Horizon oilrig, where 11 workers died in 2010. U.S. Coast Guard/AP