Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Legal experts say criminal charges likely in Gulf oil spill

WASHINGTON - Federal investigators are likely to file criminal charges against at least one of the companies involved in the Gulf of Mexico spill, raising the prospects of significantly higher penalties than a current $75 million cap on civil liability, legal experts say.
An inquiry by the Homeland Security and Interior Departments into how the spill occurred is still in its early stages and authorities have not confirmed whether a criminal investigation has been launched.
But environmental law experts say it's just a matter of time until the Justice Department steps in - if it hasn't already - to initiate a criminal inquiry and take punitive action.
"There is no question there'll be an enforcement action," said David M. Uhlmann, who headed the Justice Department's environmental crimes section for seven years during the Clinton and Bush administrations. "And, it's very likely that there will be at least some criminal charges brought."
While Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) successfully led the opposition from oil producing states, at least for now blocking an administration-backed proposal to lift the current $75 million cap on liability under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to $10 billion, there's no cap on criminal penalties. In fact, prosecutors in such cases can seek twice the cost of environmental and economic damages resulting from the spill.

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