Thursday, November 15, 2012

BP Oil Spill: Retribution for the Lost Souls, Public and Environmental Health Issues?

Keywords or terms: BP Settlement; US Department of Justice; clean water Act; Macondo Well; Public Health; Civil and criminal Penalties; Deep water Horizon Rig; 12 Felonies; and, Workplace Safety.

On April 20, 2010, BP committed eleven felonies by failing to handle the pressure test readings on Deep Water Horizon Oil Rig, before the blowout. The catastrophic consequence of this failure led to the deaths of Karl Kleppinger, Stephen Curtis , Shane Roshto, Dale Burkeen, Dewey Revette, Jason Anderson, Donald Clark, Gordon Jones, Blair Manuel, Alan Weise and Roy Kemp. Today, excluding the financial repercussions of this failure under parts of the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. §1251 et seq. (1972), the executives at the multinational energy corporation, accepted responsibility for the failure of the blow out to the tune of four and a half billion dollars; and, pled guilty to eleven felonies for being negligent in the deaths of eleven workers. The company was also found to have obstructed Congress in the aftermath investigation of the blowout, a felony on its own. In all, British Petroleum was found to have committed twelve felonies for the human tragedy and environmental disaster.

BP’s Deep water oil and gas drilling activities that led to deaths of eleven Americans, is now being addressed or confronted by the Company, with a United States Department of Justice Settlement. With the announced settlement this morning, BP’s executives agreed to huge settlement and fines, as compared to other industrial accident in the history of the country. Two supervisors on that rig before and during the accidental explosion, Robert Kaluza and Don Virdrine, are facing criminal charges; and, David Rainey, BP’s vice president of exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, is going to be held responsible for a confusing estimation of the flow rate after the Macondo well went kaput!

That BP has finally accepted close to complete responsibility for the mayhem of that accidental explosion, is encouraging; however, it is not the panacea to the problem of poor workplace safety regime. BP’s felonies and fines settlement are not necessarily adequate to change behavior fully; however, it is setting a good example to the industry. The new understanding or realization is this: if any oil and gas explorer fails to cross all its t’s and dot all its “i’s”, while drilling for oil and gas, it will be held both civilly and criminally responsible. For oil and gas explorers and drillers, who have not met similar faith to British Petroleum or who have refused to pay attention to issues of safety on those huge drilling activities, this is a reality check and a good instrument of change.

According to Attorney General Eric Holder’s pronouncement at a Conference in New Orleans, this marks the largest single criminal fine and the largest total criminal resolution in the history of the United States. Most of the fines have been designated to be spent on restoring the Gulf of Mexico; and one more thing, the restoration of the Gulf Coast is a healthy indication that British Petroleum is going to live up to its promise in those public relations advertisement that followed the disaster! The fact that BP reached a settlement with DOJ before the case goes to full trial is probably a good indicator that the company realizes it has much to loose from a long winded out trials in the court of law. Essentially, the multinational energy corporation is doubly realizing that, it has lost the fight in the manner of public opinion regarding the accident. Waiting longer by a drawn out litigation with the federal government would have spelt out more ill will.

The proactive nature of US Justice Department on this case, quickly holding British Petroleum responsible for this accident, is probably one reason why the corporation stood down from its rostrum of we are doing everything in the gulf to make it right! These settlement and fines with BP, though not complete with respect to other impacting laws of the land, defines a new direction for handling huge environmental pollution and disaster from lackadaisical attitude of corporations regarding exploration activities. As the nation and company tackle the threat to the environmental infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico with this fines and penalties, efforts mitigating further damage to the environment must now be explored. For example, the company misled the country regarding the rate of oil and gas leaks; and, went on the air advertising that all is well in the Gulf waters. Pending the final approval of the US District Court Judge blessing of the settlement, it is safe to say, there will be about $7.8 dollars available to deal with the huge problems that have begrudge property owners, commercial fishermen, environmental groups, hotels, and tourism groups. These groups have been at the receiving end of this mayhem.

Further, the environmental impact and damage from the oil and gas leaks had destabilized the ecological and biological systems in the Gulf of Mexico. Some Ocean and Marine scientists had presented evidence that the systems are healing; however, the people in the Gulf still have a long way to go because of the hugeness or extent of environmental impact of the disaster. Environmental and Public Health professionals now have opportunity to look into the issue of public health due to the impact of the explosion and pollution. Existing efforts at mitigating the extent of damage may have played down the issue of public health; with this money, objective and consistent investigation must now be lounged, to correct for possible damage in this realm. It is imperative that public health studies look into the following: 1) monitoring of the health status of residents in the Gulf Coast States that were directly impacted by the spill; 2) track diagnostic health problem due to the health hazards of the oil spill; 3) inform and educate the public in the Gulf, how to manage risks associated with the fall out of huge oil and gas spills; 4) mobilize oil industry and public partnership panel to make recommendation on how to deal with similar disasters in the future; 5) develop new penalty laws at the State level to hold oil and gas companies responsible for environmental damage, with respect to public health; 6) link public health officials to services needed in an emergency so that impacted communities are not left wanting or waiting, until an offending corporations take responsibility for their negligent actions in the process of drilling for oil and gas; and, 7) evaluate the effectiveness of existing state laws and penalties for corrective action for environmental pollution from oil and gas drilling activities.

The Settlement with the US Department of Justice is a ray of hope for many families of workers and residents of the Gulf, who have sued British Petroleum. There are others, local government, businesses and financial institutions who have cases pending. There may end up being a class action suit of somewhat; however, it is now certain that the evaluation criteria for reaching a monetary settlement with the Federal Government may be applicable in several litigation going on or in the pipe line. The metrics of monetary liability or compensation can now be available to any of the interested party, who or which, have suffered from BP negligence in the Gulf of Mexico.

There is a reported BP settlement with US Justice Department involving three government agencies benefiting from the payout, $500 – Security and Exchange Commission; $350 million – National Academy of Sciences; and, $2.4 billion - National Fish and Wild Life Foundation. There was no settlement with the State or Local government agencies. It is very possible that state and local government’s litigation against British Petroleum will bring the liabilities to more billions. The impacted States probably have not offered the size of their claims; and if any of them have done, there is a likelihood that some adjustments may be in the offing due to the settlements with the Justice Department.

In addition, the settlement structure with the US Justice Department may become a prototype or useful deliberation point of settlement, in relevant or related civil litigation. The specific claims or consequential settlements may be mirrored in other remaining litigation before judges. Gulf Coast State governments may want to consider the issue of resident vulnerability to accidents of this nature in the future; and take cue from what is currently being learnt regarding this accident and settlement. States or Local governments may want to require operating corporations in their water, to carry additional insurance specific to the geography of their waters and land. The settlement with the federal government is an initial step in a possible expanding litigation; and, the implications of this settlement may provide a barometer for individual civil cases.

The efforts of the US Justice Department with respect to drawing out a settlement with British Petroleum demonstrates the importance of government when corporations run afoul of the law; or get heavy handed with respect to their drilling activities on state and federal waters and lands. Environmental Pollution from oil and gas spill as the one in the Gulf of Mexico has simultaneous public health issues. As more research is conducted into the long range public health impact of the British Petroleum oil and gas spills, it is more likely that new findings will point us to the health status consequence of the BP Oil spills in the adjoining states in the Gulf of Mexico.

In light of this settlement, a case may be made for retribution regarding public health dissonance. Most of the oil sludge that has ended up in marine life and are probably in the sea foods of the region, indicate that environment and public health have suffered; or, are suffering from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Further public health research findings may open up a new trove of information regarding the epidemiological impact of the oil spill. Several tourists have been swimming in the water where the oil and gas were spilled. It is not impossible to find that some of these tourists suffer skin diseases as a result of the residue; not withstanding past claims that all the oil has been eaten up by bacteria. It is possible that oil eating bacteria and organism were able to dissolve or eat up some of the oil; however, it is very unlikely that all the oil that were spilled are now completely gone.

Conclusively, the announced settlement with the US Department of Justice is a good first step that may have implication for future oil and gas exploration; environmental pollution abatement; possible future settlements under individual and state claims by British petroleum; and, establishing corrective behavior in the oil and gas drilling activities. With regard to public health, it is probably going to take a while, before we start finding the consequence of that spill; however, we are finally getting a grip of the first baby step to exploring the implication of the oil spill for public health in the Gulf Coast Sates. For now, we have a settlement and probably rule book for future settlements, where oil and gas exploration may go aerie. BP has taken ownership of fault and probably guilt for the greatest environmental pollution activity and accident in the Gulf of Mexico!
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