NEW ORLEANS (CN) – With billions of dollars at stake, the trial over the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history was pushed back a week as settlement talks between BP and oil spill plaintiffs’ attorneys continued.
The trial had been set to open today, Monday, but was rescheduled to begin in a week, on Monday, March 5.
Postponement is “for reasons of judicial efficiency and to allow the parties to make further progress in their settlement discussions,” according to the order issued Sunday afternoon by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier.
Barbier will preside over the trial without a jury.
The trial involves claims of 116,000 plaintiffs who seek compensation for lost revenue and personal injuries from the oil spill. The federal government also has claims for damages against BP and the other defendants, including fines for Clean Water Act violations. Punitive damages are possible. Billions of dollars are at stake.
BP and plaintiff attorneys issued a joint statement on Sunday to confirm the trial’s delay, saying there “can be no assurance that these discussions will lead to a settlement agreement.”
Eleven people were killed in the April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that injured 17 others and set off the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Nearly 5 million gallons of oil were spilled in 87 days.
The broken well was finally capped July 15, 2010, leaving more than 650 miles of coastline soaked in oil.
The trial is the first of three phases, and will assign fault among the defendants for the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon. This portion is expected to last into May.
The second phase will assess the defendants’ nearly 3-month-long effort to cap the Macondo well.
Phase three will examine cleanup efforts.
BP is one of several defendants accused of negligence before the spill. Other defendants include Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon; Cameron International, the manufacturer of the failed blowout preventer; and Halliburton, which provided cement services to the rig.
It was unclear Sunday if a settlement now would affect whether subsequent phases of the trial take place. In all, the three phases could last most of the year.
Trial analysts speculated that BP will want to settle now rather than face embarrassing evidence during trial.
Judge Barbier ruled in previous weeks that BP’s extensive history of criminal charges and the maximum air and water pollution fines it paid cannot be brought into this phase of the trial because of time considerations.
Last week, a land trust that owns 35,000 acres of barrier lands, crucial to hurricane protection and affected by the oil spill, filed for summary judgment in Barbier’s court, claims BP has withheld information about its oil spill cleanup and has not funded the whole response or cleaned up all the oil on its land.
The Edward Wisner Donation is a landholding trust whose 35,000 acres include 9 miles along the Gulf of Mexico in the area known as Fourchon Beach.
Fourchon beach is the closest stretch of coast to BP’s ill-fated Macondo well. More than 600 oil platforms sit within a 40-mile radius, which produces roughly 17 percent of the U.S. domestic oil supply.
In addition to being rich in oil, Gulf waters bordering Fourchon Beach are among the most biologically diverse in the world.
The Wisner Donation says oil began washing ashore at its Fourchon Beach property about a month after the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
“Without the Wisner Donation’s Fourchon property, the spit of remaining land on either side of Bayou Lafourche would quickly erode, uniting the Barataria/Caminada and Terrebonne basins and exposing the underbelly of Louisiana to the forces of nature,” according to the memorandum in support of motion for partial summary judgment. “If this were to pass, the historic coastal communities of Cocodrie, Dulac, Montegut, Isle Jean Charles, Pointe-Au-Chien, Lockport, Lafitte and Grand Bayou could become relics of the past, with Houma and New Orleans greatly threatened. If this were to pass, south Louisiana’s unique heterogeneous cultures will be forever changed.”
Wisner adds: “The survival of this critical coastal habitat, and the nationally significant energy infrastructure on Donation property, is directly dependent on the survival of Fourchon beach. The contamination from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has introduced additional risks for the planned restoration project, and has complicated efforts to save this area.”
Wisner claims: “Despite the massive cleanup operation, oil can still be found throughout the Donation’s property: on the sandy beach, in the washouts and natural bayous, in the salt flats, mangrove and saltwater marshes found behind the beach crest and on the waterbottoms both in front of and behind the beach.”
And, Wisner says: “Although oil also washed deep into the salt marsh behind the beach at Fourchon, BP has never assessed the location of contamination in the marsh, despite requests from the Donation.”
Wisner says that “BP has refused to pay for required monitoring and analysis on the Donation’s property. The practical effect of BP’s refusal to abide by its payment obligations is that funds which would have gone to support philanthropic causes are instead being diverted to fund Deepwater Horizon spill response.”
It claims that “BP’s breach of the Access Agreement literally began as soon as it was signed. On November 9, 2010, the Donation sent a letter to BP’s counsel outlining BP’s breaches of the agreement over the preceding three months. These breaches included failure to pay response costs, failure to provide contact information for people working on the property, and timely notice of meetings affecting the property.”
Neither BP nor the Edward Wisner Donation was available for comment.
A Courthouse News reporter visitedWisner’s Fourchon Beach property in September 2011 to survey tar mats and oil uncovered from Tropical Storm Lee.
Oil was apparent all along the beach.
Forrest Travirca III, field inspector of the Wisner Donation portion of Fourchon Beach, told Courthouse News at the time that bird mortality had increased since the oil spill. He said many juvenile diving birds, including pelicans, had shown up dead along the beach. All had at least one broken wing.
Juvenile dolphins with umbilical cords still attached had also washed up on shore, according to accounts. Travirca said he and his colleagues had found 20 to 25 dead juvenile dolphins on the beach in the past year.
“We live in a different world now,” Travirca said of the changes he had seen since the oil spill.
Wisner’s motion was not the first legal document to accuse BP of shoddy oil spill cleanup. In January, a whistleblowerwho worked for BP in cleanup management filed a lawsuit claims that BP fired him after he refused to skew cleanup records in Mississippi.
In the weeks after the explosion, as oil gushed into the Gulf, coastal Louisiana residents voiced concerns that BP’s objective, first in failing to cap the well, and subsequently in failing to respond immediately to the oil, was to contaminate the wetlands and fragile coastline in order to get mineral rights to the oil beneath. Without endangered wetlands to protect, mineral rights would be easier to obtain, residents said.
The Wisner Donation seeks a partial summary judgment to enforce its access agreement with BP.
It is represented Robert Wiygul of Ocean Springs, Miss. and Joel Waltzer of Harvey, La.