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Oil spill jail time for BP officials? It could happen.

BP officials could be prosecuted under the Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act, and the Endangered Species Act. So could federal officials if they aided and abetted any illegal acts.

By Staff writer / June 2, 2010

An oiled brown pelican, which was captured on a barrier island off the fragile Louisiana coast, is cleaned at a triage center in Fort Jackson, La. The US Justice Department is investigating possible prosecutions because of the BP oil spill. Environmental laws may apply.

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The US Department of Justice has launched civil and criminal investigations into the events surrounding the BP oil spill. Does that mean people who helped cause the spill will be going to jail?

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Yes, they might be. Violations of some of the applicable environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act, can result in severe repercussions.

“Clearly, that’s on the table,” says William Snape, a professor at the American University school of law. “I’d say the odds are greater than 50-50 that someone will get jail time or a probationary sentence.”

In one sense, Tuesday’s announcement of the Justice Department probe into the Deepwater Horizon disaster was a chronicle of a prosecution foretold. Given that 11 people died in the explosion and fire that destroyed the Deepwater rig, and that the oil spill may be the worst environmental disaster in American history, federal law enforcement officials are virtually duty-bound to launch an investigation into what transpired in the Gulf of Mexico on that fateful April evening.

However, the manner in which the White House chose to make Tuesday’s announcement – a televised public statement by Attorney General Eric Holder following a meeting with state attorneys general and federal prosecutors – was something of a surprise. After all, it’s BP that’s in charge of stopping up the well that’s currently pouring oil into the open ocean. In that sense, the administration remains in a working relationship – albeit an uneasy one – with the very firm it’s threatening to prosecute.

The laws at issue here include, among others, the Clean Water Act, which mandates both civil and criminal penalties for violations; the Oil Pollution Act of 1990; and the Endangered Species Act, which penalizes those who injure or kill covered wildlife.

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