NEW ORLEANS (CN) – BP could have stopped the oil spewing from its broken wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico, but didn’t do so for fear it might damage the well and make it no good for future use, a class of landowners claims in Federal Court.
“After the blowout and before the well was finally sealed, BP was aware of procedures that would immediately block the flow of hydrocarbons into the Gulf, yet it delayed the implementation of any such procedures, and limited its efforts to plug the well to options that would salvage the well for future use, instead of selecting procedures that would stop the flow of oil and gas as soon as possible regardless of the well’s continued functionality,” the complaint states.
Lead plaintiff Guy Mendes III owns land on the Grand Terre islands, and sued on his own behalf and for 100 other Grand Terre islands property owners.
“Plaintiff and the class are owners of some of Southern Louisiana’s most important barrier islands – the islands of Grand Terre. These islands sit as the main barrier between the Gulf of Mexico and Barataria Bay, serving an integral role in Louisiana’s natural coastal defenses,” according to the complaint.
Mendes says the April 20, 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig “marked the beginning of what would become the most pervasive and devastating environmental disaster in the history of the United States. The blowout and subsequent explosions, fire, and sinking of the vessel resulted in an oil spill of unprecedented proportions that damaged, depleted and destroyed marine, estuarine, and coastal environments in and around the Gulf of Mexico, including the Grand Terre islands. Although the blown-out well is now capped, the disastrous environmental effects of the spill are widespread and ongoing on Grand Terre and will likely remain so for decades. …
“Each day during the course of the spill, tens of thousands of barrels of oil and gas gushed from the wellhead and broken riser, roiling towards the surface and flattening out into a widening slick of oil, as well as spreading out in vast subsurface plumes. On the surface, the shifting smear was large enough to be visible from outer space, at times covering tens of thousands of square miles …
“The blowout on the Deepwater Horizon and the resulting spill were foreshadowed by a string of prior disastrous incidents and near misses in defendants’ operations on land and at sea, as well as poor decision-making by defendants’ employees, as they ignored crucial safety issues, cut corners, and violated U.S. law to save time and money at the expense of safety and the environment.
“Defendants could have prevented this catastrophe by following required safety protocols and precautionary procedures, properly maintaining equipment, and using widely available emergency safety technology aboard the Deepwater Horizon but, with no regard for the risk of the Gulf Coast environment and Grand Terre, defendants chose to save money and time by skimping on safety. Their cost-cutting measures were intentional and outrageous – consistent with their long corporate histories of flagrant disregard for safety – and were taken with willful, wanton, and reckless indifference to the disastrous results to the environment of Grand Terre and the Gulf of Mexico. Moreover, because their conduct was repetitive, was purposeful or intentional rather than accidental, endangered the health and safety of a large region and population, contaminated the class members’ property with oil and tar, caused and increased the risk of environmental harm, serious injury and bodily and emotional harm, and affected a financially vulnerable population dependant upon the Gulf of Mexico, the degree of reprehensibility of defendants’ conduct is at the highest level.
“The spill, resulting from the defendants’ despicable conduct, along with the resulting ineffective attempts at clean-up, have caused and continue to cause devastating environmental damage to Louisiana’s most important coastal defenses, including Grand Terre. More than sixteen months after the blowout, oil and tar still contaminate Grand Terre, large numbers of dead fish, crabs, and stingrays continue to wash ashore on its beaches, and ineffective clean-up efforts are ongoing. While it has been reported that the majority of the surface oil in the Gulf of Mexico has now been collected, burned, dispersed, or broken down, the waters surrounding Grand Terre still remain closed to fishing, and subsurface oil and tar still threaten to resurface and further damage Grand Terre and the delicate Gulf Coast ecosystem.”
Besides serving as breeding areas for birds, fish and crustaceans, wetlands cushion the blow of hurricanes on coastal areas. Every 3 to 4 miles of healthy coastal wetlands over which a storm surge travels is estimated to reduce the size of the surge by 1 foot.
Before the oil spill, coastal Louisiana lost wetlands at a rate of about 1 acre every half hour. Forty to 60 percent of annual wetland loss is attributed to the oil and gas industry, according to statistics from the Gulf Coast Restoration Network.
Mendes claims that “although this is a single-event, single-location mass disaster that has affected, and will continue to affect Grand Terre for a long time to come, its wide-ranging effects can be traced back to one single root: a chain of decisions and actions made jointly, severally, and solidarily by the small group of defendants named here.”
Named as defendants are BP, Transocean, Triton Asset Leasing, Halliburton, M-I LLC, Cameron International Corp., Weatherford U.S. L.P., MOEX USA Corp. and Mitsui Oil Exploration Co.
Mendes says that “after the blowout and before the well was finally sealed, BP was aware of procedures that would immediately block the flow of hydrocarbons into the Gulf, yet it delayed the implementation of any such procedures, and limited its efforts to plug the well to options that would salvage the well for future use, instead of selecting procedures that would stop the flow of oil and gas as soon as possible regardless of the well’s continued functionality. As such, BP increased the magnitude of, and damage caused by, the spill by willfully and/or wantonly and recklessly choosing its profits over the lives of the workers on the vessel, the safety of the environment, and the health, welfare, and value of the people, businesses, and property of the Gulf Coast. …
“Defendants’ conduct … is at the highest level of reprehensibility, warranting and necessitating the imposition of punitive damages at the highest level, because defendants’ conduct was motivated by financial gain; because it injured and endangered humans and the environmental health and safety; because it was not isolated or accidental, but part of a culture and ongoing pattern of conduct that consistently and repeatedly ignored risks to others in favor of financial advantage to defendants; and because it has accordingly caused societal harm, moral outrage and condemnation, and the need to punish defendants and deter further repetition by defendants or others.”
Mendes and the putative class are represented by Dawn Barrios with Barrios, Kingsdorf & Casteix of New Orleans and Elizabeth Cabraser with Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein of San Francisco.
Elizabeth Cabraser represented plaintiffs in the Exxon Valdez spill. She is on the plaintiff steering committee for the multidistrict litigation overseen in New Orleans Federal Court by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier.