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.
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In terms of civil violations all these statutes have fairly strict liability standards. For the Endangered Species Act, prosecutors must prove only that a particular action sickened or killed one endangered sea turtle, say.Skip to next paragraph
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Given that low bar, a successful civil prosecution in this case is almost inevitable.
“It’s almost certain that [BP, Transocean, or other firms involved] will be found guilty of something,” says professor Snape, an expert in environmental law.
According to Snape, the more interesting question is whether Interior Department officials will also be prosecuted and found guilty of contributing to the BP disaster.
A number of internal reports have found egregious personal behavior and a too-cozy relationship with industry within the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS). If federal officials aided and abetted illegal acts on the part of BP, the Justice Department could pursue them, too.
“There are definitely some government officials who are sweating a little bit right now,” says Snape.
While prosecutors will be considering violations of a number of environmental statutes, the most important one in this case is the Clean Water Act, says James Tripp, a senior counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund. It is a comprehensive law that sets both civil and criminal penalties for a wide range of acts resulting in water pollution.
To meet the standards of a civil prosecution, the government must show that a certain act occurred. To meet the standards of a criminal prosecution, the government must show that someone knowingly and intentionally undertook an active malfeasance.
“That’s altogether different from a civil prosecution, and very serious,” says Mr. Tripp.
But the consequences of the BP oil spill are themselves already serious, and getting worse.
“This is a mind-blowing disaster of international magnitude,” says Tripp. “Certainly the Department of Justice actions [in beginning investigations] are well-founded.