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US lays out examples of 'gross negligence' by BP

WASHINGTON--The U.S. Justice Department is ramping up its rhetoric against BP PLC for the massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, describing in new court papers examples of what it calls “gross negligence and willful misconduct.”

The court filing is the sharpest position yet taken by the U.S. government as it seeks to hold the British oil giant largely responsible for the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Gross negligence is a central issue to the case, slated to go to trial in New Orleans in January 2013. A gross negligence finding could nearly quadruple the civil damages owed by BP under the Clean Water Act to US$21 billion.

The U.S. government and BP are engaged in talks to settle civil and potential criminal liability, though neither side will comment on the status of negotiations.

“The behavior, words, and actions of these BP executives would not be tolerated in a middling size company manufacturing dry goods for sale in a suburban mall,” government lawyers wrote in the filing on Aug. 31 in federal court in New Orleans.

The filing comes more than two years after the disaster that struck on April 20, 2010 when a surge of methane gas known to rig hands as a “kick” sparked an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig as it was drilling the mile (1.6 km) deep Macondo 252 well off Louisiana's coast. The rig sank two days later.

The well spewed 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 straight days, unleashing a torrent of oil that fouled the shorelines of four Gulf Coast states and eclipsed the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in severity.

Specifically, errors made by BP and Swiss-based Transocean Ltd., owner of the Deepwater Horizon platform, in deciphering a key pressure test of the Macondo well are a clear indication of gross negligence, the Justice Department said.

“That such a simple, yet fundamental and safety-critical test could have been so stunningly, blindingly botched in so many ways, by so many people, demonstrates gross negligence,” the government said in its 39-page filing.

BP rejects the charge. “BP believes it was not grossly negligent and looks forward to presenting evidence on this issue at trial in January,” the company said in a statement. A Transocean spokesman had no immediate comment.

On Aug. 13, BP urged U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier to approve an estimated US$7.8 billion settlement reached with 125,000 individuals and businesses, asserting its actions “did not constitute gross negligence or willful misconduct.”

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