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Gulf oil spill: Questions unanswered, residents try legal action

State attorneys general, commercial fishing organizations, and environmental groups are pressing BP to provide more information on the cause of the massive Gulf oil spill.

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“Clearly not enough information is being released to adequately allow the public and their attorneys to independently analyze what happened and what the potential public health and environmental consequences are going to be,” says Stuart Smith, a New Orleans-based attorney who is the lead counsel for the coalition. As for damages, Mr. Smith says for now they’re secondary to information that might provide insight into the explosion.

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BP has been silent on this issue. The media hotline it operates in Houston does not allow reporters to leave messages. It refers callers to an information center run by the US Coast Guard.

Peter Jacques, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando who studies the politics of oil spills, says BP’s behavior is not unlike what happened after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. Exxon first blamed the mishap on a drunken ship captain until it was learned it was one of several reasons related to broken protocol and safety mishaps. Establishing a narrative is essential for oil companies in the aftermath of a spill, Mr. Jacques says, because it can affect the scope of government regulation and the amount of awarded damages that follow.

'There's a problem with transparency'

“If history tells us anything it’s that the folks who have something to lose on the liability front … play a shell game with it for a little while which is why I’m not surprised there’s a problem with transparency,” says Mr. Jacques.

Government officials are already stepping up the pressure on BP. On Thursdays Reuters reported a six-member board of US Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service officials will launch an investigation into the cause of the explosion next week.

This week, attorneys general in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida sent a letter to BP insisting that it take all liability claims seriously. A $75 million liability cap was established following the Exxon Valdez spill. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the Obama administration is considering “significantly lifting” that amount, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested could jump as high as $10 billion.

“BP’s going to get a bill for the recovery, the cleanup, and the damages caused,” Mr. Gibbs said.

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