NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The Deepwater Horizon disaster was an "act of willful misconduct," a Justice Department attorney said Monday during opening statements in the civil trial. Not only was preventing the disaster "BP's responsibility, it was in BP's power" the attorney said.
Michael Underhill, lead attorney for the Department of Justice, said the catastrophe was brought about by a series of "failures that should not have happened - failures that with even the simplest amount of care would not have happened."
Underhill and attorneys for other parties argued that BP's risky behavior and pattern of putting profit first led to the April 20, 2010 oil rig explosion that killed 11 and set off the worst oil spill in history.
Plaintiffs' attorney Jim Roy said that BP consistently put speed and profit ahead of safety, and took "high risks with conscious disregard for dire potential outcomes."
Underhill said the 87-day uncontrolled leak of the Macondo well was the result of a complex of failures, and that if any one separate mechanical failure had been caught the disaster would not have happened. But the failures were not caught and careless attitudes prevailed.
Underhill discussed an email exchange between BP drilling engineers Brett Cocalas and Brian Morel, sent four days before the explosion.
In reply to Morel's comment that he had used just six centralizers on the well casing - rather than 21, as Halliburton had recommended - Cocalas wrote: "But, who cares, its done, end of story, will probably be fine and we'll get a good cement job."
Underhill cited another exchange, a phone call between BP supervisor Donald Vidrine, who faces criminal charges, and Mark Hafle, an engineer.
A poor negative pressure test had just been completed.
Underhill said the negative pressure test should have been simple to interpret: There should have been no flow from the well, and no pressure buildup. If either flow or pressure build up are present, the test is a failure.
The test indicated pressure buildup. Nevertheless, during the conversation between Vidrine and Hafle, "Don told Mark that he was fully satisfied that the rig crew had performed a successful negative test," Underhill told the judge.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier is presiding over the bench trial, which is expected to last 3 months. It's the first of two trials scheduled on civil damages. This round will focus on what caused the disaster, and will try to apportion blame for it. Part two, slated to begin in September, will try to determine how much oil spilled.
If attorneys can prove BP was "grossly negligent," fines under the Clean Water Act could rise from $1,100 per barrel of oil spilled to as much as $4,300 per barrel.
Most estimates put the spill at around 4.9 million barrels. BP claims that exaggerates the amount by 20 percent. The government has agreed not to try to fine BP for the 810,000 barrels of oil it managed to contain.
BP insists it was not grossly negligent.
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