NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has been given the go-ahead to investigate the April 20 BP drilling rig explosion that killed 11 people and triggered the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. A local judge also gave him permission to delve into the company’s process for compensating Louisianans affected by the disaster.
Plaquemines Parish District Court Judge Joy C. Lobrano granted Caldwell’s request for information “pertaining to the oil spill, BP’s use of disperants, water quality data, and the circumstances surrounding the incident, as well as information pertaining to BP’s response to the oil spill, including BP’s claims process for short-term, intermim damages.”
In his petition for the information, Caldwell noted that Louisiana “is subject to greater exposure to a major oil spill disaster than any other state.” This exposure, coupled with its limited highway access and resources, “creates a great potential for a major spill event and destructive consequences in a State which holds 26 percent of the nation’s commercial fisheries, has the nation’s highest marine recreational fishery catches, leads the nation in fur production and the world in alligator production, and has more overwhelming waterfowl than any other state,” Caldwell claimed.
He said his discovery request was “even more pressing given BP’s lack of cooperation and inability to control the well leak.”
Caldwell pointed out that Louisiana’s coastline has been made even more vulnerable by Hurricane Katrina’s massive destruction of barrier islands. Louisiana’s “numerous shallow, interconnecting waterways and the gentle slope of coastal areas allow for the inundation of oil into the State’s estuaries,” the petition states. “The vast expanses of Louisiana’s soft, unconsolidated marshes lying just a few inches above sea level would, in the event of an oil spill as this, fatally soak up large amounts of oil.”
Caldwell also attacked BP’s response to the oil spill, saying it failed to act promptly and has tried to conceal the enormity of the disaster. He said BP initially disputed government estimates that the oil flow was much greater than 1,000 barrels a day, insisting there was “no reliable way” to measure the oil spill. The oil giant resisted requests from national scientists and the media to release video of the oil leak, Caldwell said, and only posted the video following a Senate hearing and immense public pressure — nearly three weeks after the spill.
The day after Deepwater Horizon caught fire and burned, Caldwell said, a BP employee contacted the Louisiana State Police Department to report the presence of oil near the smoldering rig. But BP allegedly refused to publicly acknowledge that crude oil was leaking from a severed riser pipe until April 24.
When the oil leak was finally announced to the public, BP’s lowball estimate put the oil flow rate at 1,000 barrels a day, Louisiana’s attorney general said.
Federal scientists announced last week that oil is gushing from the broken well at a rate of approximately 40,000 barrels a day — 40 times the company’s initial estimation. At that rate, 1.68 million gallons are spewing from the well each day, surpassing nearly every week the 11 million gallons of oil dumped by the Exxon Valdez in 1989. That means the Gulf of Mexico has potentially held more than 94 million gallons of oil, Caldwell said.
He said information on the oil flow rate is imperative, considering BP’s estimate that the broken well holds 50 million barrels of oil, or more than 2 billion gallons.
The attorney general said Gov. Bobby Jindal’s first inspection of Pass a Loutre, La., found the wetlands to be oil-smothered, with reeds sticking 8 feet out of the water, coated with brown and rust-colored globs of sludge.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said Friday that at least 10 miles of wetlands lining Pass a Loutre are already irreparably “lost” to oil intrusion.
Blankets of heavy oil continue to invade portions of reedy freshwater wetlands at Louisiana’s southeastern tip, impacting new areas of Louisiana’s coastline.
Caldwell said BP and its affiliates “proceeded with their own chosen strategies,” none of which has worked, without considering the alternatives. Though BP claims to have considered 800 of the tens of thousands of suggestions it receives, Caldwell said only one-half of 1 percent of those considered have made it to the testing phase.
The attorney general also expressed concern over the massive amount of chemical dispersants used to battle the spill. As of June 4, more than 1 million gallons of toxic dispersants had been directly injected into the well’s main plume rising from the Gulf floor, according to Caldwell.
He said the “continued use of vast, unprecedented amounts of toxic dispersants has caused and has contributed to huge undersea plumes that pose a catastrophic danger to marine ecology and habitat, including reefs and reef organisms, wildlife, oyster beds, and fisheries, among others which have been or will likely be coated and smothered by the plumes of oil mixed with toxic dispersant chemicals.”
The spill is worth investigating, Caldwell added, because it will have a long-lasting and profound impact on the state’s economy.
Louisiana has a $3 billion fishing industry and is the source of one-third of all seafood consumed in the United States, according to the Seafood Marketing and Promotion Board. Seafood caught in Louisiana also helps anchor the economies of nearby states that process it, such as Alabama and Mississippi.
As a result of the spill, many thousands of workers in Louisiana have lost their jobs or are at risk of losing them in the near future, Caldwell said. He said all of the programs administered by the Louisiana Workforce Commission will be heavily impacted by the oil spill.
“It is undisputed that Louisiana’s marshes, wetlands, shores, ecology, economy, tourism, waters, and wildlife have been and continue to be profoundly impacted by the Gulf oil spill,” Caldwell said in his petition, granted Monday by Judge Lobrano.
“The State, as trustee of Louisiana’s natural resources and administrator of Louisiana’s worker compensation system, therefore seeks all information which is in defendant’s possession regarding the circumstances surrounding the explosion, fire and consequences of the oil spill, and all information with respect to the consistency and characteristics of the oil, including any and all information relating to the use and composition of the mud used in drilling and top kill operations, any and all water and air quality data, any and all information relating to oiled and injured wildlife, any and all information relating to the use and effects of dispersants, and all documents relating to BP’s claims process.
Partial funding for Caldwell’s investigation came from BP, after the governor allocated $5 million of a $25 million grant BP gave Louisiana for oil spill response efforts. The $5 million is a start, Caldwell said, but he asked the state for $27 million to hire outside counsel and conduct a thorough investigation.
BP has 10 days to raise objections, and then Caldwell’s investigation can begin.