Washington, DC — The Inspector General of the U.S. Justice Department should investigate whether the criminal prosecution of the largest oil spill in the history of Alaska’s North Slope was improperly blunted, according to a complaint filed yesterday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). PEER lodged the complaint on behalf of Scott West, the Special Agent-in-Charge with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assigned to the case who retired in frustration last week.
In March 2006, a major pipeline leak went undetected for days, spilling a quarter-million gallons of oil on the Alaskan tundra. The spill occurred because the pipeline operator, British Petroleum (BP), ignored its own workers’ warnings by neglecting critical maintenance to cut costs. The spill sparked congressional hearings and a large federal-state investigation. Despite the outcry, in a settlement announced in late October 2007, BP agreed to one misdemeanor charge carrying three-year probation and a total of only $20 million in penalties (a $12 million fine with $8 million in restitution and compensatory payments).
The settlement resulted from a sudden U.S. Justice Department August 2007 decision to wrap up the case, according to West. That precipitous shutdown meant –
• Felony charges would not be pursued and the agreement foreclosed any future prosecutions. No BP executive faced any criminal liability for a spill second in size only to the Exxon Valdez;
• The fines proposed by Justice (to which BP immediately agreed) were only a fraction of what was legally required under the Alternative Fines Act. EPA had calculated the appropriate fine levels as several times what Justice offered BP – ranging from $58 million to $672 million, depending upon the economic assumptions; and
• The BP Alaska settlement is part of a pattern of “lowball” corporate public safety and pollution settlements engineered by the Bush Justice Department. In that October 2007 settlement package, Justice asked for only $50 million in fines for the BP Texas refinery explosion in which 15 people died – penalties not carrying strong deterrent value for a big multi-national corporation.
In a statement submitted by PEER to the Inspector General, West said:
“Never …have I had a significant environmental criminal case shut down by the political arm of the Department of Justice, nor have I had a case declined by the Department of Justice before I had been fully able to investigate the case. This is unprecedented in my experience.”
By asking for an Inspector General investigation, PEER is hoping to produce Justice Department policies which stiffen future prosecutions of corporate criminals, as well as determining whether the White House exercised any influence in inducing a quick resolution on terms favorable to BP.
“Occupational fatalities and pollution blowouts cannot be sanctioned so lightly that they are an acceptable cost of doing business,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “A full autopsy of this case must be done to determine what killed the tough felony prosecution of a major environmental crime.”