WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal government will be “extremely forceful” in response to any findings that BP, Transocean or Halliburton broke laws leading up to worst oil spill in U.S. history. Speaking from New Orleans Tuesday, Holder announced the launch of civil and criminal investigations into the spill, saying, “We will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law anyone that has violated the law.”
It was Holder’s first visit to the region since the spill began on April 20, caused by an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Holder said he met with Coast Guard officers and toured the Louisiana Delta, describing seeing “oil for miles and miles” that was devastating local wildlife and livelihoods, amounting to “nothing less than a tragedy.” Holder said he viewed “just one small portion of the damage.”
As head of the administration’s legal response to the spill, Holder promised that he and his staff “will ensure the American people do not foot the bill for this disaster and that our laws are enforced to the full extent.”
Holder initially sent a team of attorneys, including head of the Environment and Natural Resources Division Ignacia Moreno and the head of the Justice Department’s civil division Tony West, to New Orleans to deal with the spill.
Along with his visit to the region, Holder said department officials are meeting with state and federal prosecutors in the area about crafting a legal response.
Holder said that as part of the newly launched civil and criminal probe, Justice Department attorneys are reviewing laws that might apply to the spill. The statutes include the Clean Water Act, which carries both civil and criminal penalties; the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which can be used to recover cleanup costs and taxpayer funds; the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, which carry penalties for injuring and killing wildlife and bird species; and other criminal statutes.
“There are a wide range of possible violations under these statutes, and we will closely examine the actions of those involved in this spill,” Holder said. “If we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will be extremely forceful in our response.”
Holder also said he has asked all relevant parties to preserve documents related to the spill.
“We will be meticulous, we will be comprehensive, and we will be aggressive,” Holder said. “We will not rest until justice is done.”
“We will ensure that every cent of taxpayer money will be repaid and damages to the environment and wildlife will be reimbursed,” Holder said in prepared remarks. “We will make certain that those responsible clean up the mess they have made and restore or replace the natural resources lost or injured in this tragedy. And we will prosecute to the full extent any violations of the law.”
Holder said the department’s goal is to protect citizens who live and work near the Gulf and to recover any taxpayer funds paid to alleviate the spill. He also said the agency is working to protect the region’s environment and wildlife.
White House spokesman Bill Burton said of the probe Wednesday, “What they’re doing is checking out what laws were broken and what possible steps need to be taken in order to make sure that the law is upheld, and if people broke the law, that they’re treated accordingly.”
He added: “Sometimes, when the Justice Department is checking out to see if laws are broken, they’re just checking out to see if laws were broken. That’s what’s happening here.”
Daniel Weiss, climate strategy director for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said that while the government is still a long time away from any indictments or trials, the probe announcement showed that the “government is taking this very seriously.”
Weiss said the probe would determine “whether or not BP, Transocean or Halliburton went forward knowing that there were problems with the part of the rig operation,” and “whether or not there has been any cover-up in the elements and decision-making process that went forward leading up to the BP oil disaster.”
BP, which has promised to pay all legitimate claims, says it has received 31,010 claims to date and has paid out $39.4 million to answer the claims so far, resolving about half of total claims received.
BP also says it has spent close to $1 billion in response costs.
On April 27, one week after the explosion in the Gulf started the massive oil leak, BP announced first-quarter profits of $5.6 billion, more than double the year before for the same time period.
But the official opening of civil and criminal investigations into the spill Tuesday caused share prices to plummet for BP and other energy companies in the day’s trading. BP stock fell 13 percent, the day’s steepest decline. The fall may also have been a reaction to the oil giant’s failure over the weekend to plug the leak using the “top kill” method of injecting heavy materials into the gushing wellhead. BP stock was edging back up Wednesday.
BP reports that it has recovered 13.8 million gallons of oily water from the Gulf and burned off more than 2.8 million gallons of oil.
BP is now trying to cut the damaged riser pipe and fit a containment dome on top of the riser to funnel the oil to a surface drillship. BP Managing Director Robert Dudley said the company will know if the attempt has been successful by the end of the week.
The two relief wells currently being drilled, promising the surest solution to the spill, are not expected to be ready for another two months.