New Orleans BP’s settlement with plaintiffs suing the company over the 2010 oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico may address harm to individuals and businesses, but there is nothing in it that compensates the public for damage to its natural resources and environment, the Justice Department said Saturday.
That’s a potentially critical issue because a separate victims’ claims fund that was set up months after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion was also meant to cover environmental damages, but it’s now expected to be used to cover the BP settlement with plaintiffs. BP said it expects to pay out $7.8 billion in the settlement with the plaintiffs that was announced Friday.
It’s not clear whether environmental claims will now have to be addressed separately between BP and the U.S. government, or whether it will be rolled up into their ongoing discussions over settling the fines and penalties that the British company faces. Both issues also could be resolved at an eventual civil trial, which has now been postponed indefinitely.
The Justice Department noted that the settlement doesn’t address “significant damages” to natural resources and the environment.
“While we are pleased that BP may be stepping up to address harms to individual plaintiffs, this by no means fully addresses its responsibility for the harms it has caused,” the agency said in a statement to The Associated Press.
The spill soiled sensitive tidal estuaries and beaches, killed wildlife and closed vast areas of the Gulf to commercial fishing for months. Dispersants and siphoning equipment and other methods were successful in getting rid of much of the oil in the ocean, but some environmentalists believe oil beneath the surface could return one day to Gulf shores.
David Uhlmann, a University of Michigan Law School professor who previously served as chief of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section, estimates that a deal between BP, the federal government and the states — one that includes criminal and civil penalties and resolves natural resource damage claims — would be worth between $20 billion to $25 billion.