Lieff Cabraser Civil Justice Blog

Four Years Later, BP Oil Spill Effects Still Plague Gulf Communities and Environment, as Settlement Dispute Continues

Four Years Later, BP Oil Spill Effects Still Plague Gulf Communities and Environment, as Settlement Dispute Continues

Four years ago this week the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 and spilling 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, constituting the largest oil spill ever in U.S. history.

During the first three years, as investigations and trials brought the facts to light, BP pleaded guilty to federal crimes and entered into a binding contractual settlement with Gulf Coast residents and businesses promising to fully compensate them for the losses they suffered after the spill. In federal district court, BP urged the judge to approve the settlement, lauding it as fair and reasonable to both sides – fair to itself and fair to the people of the Gulf Coast.

akm-150.jpgThen, last year, BP changed its position, and began to criticize the settlement it had co-written and praised in open court. Where before BP hailed the settlement as fair and reasonable to all, itself included, BP now claims parts of the settlement are unfair or misinterpreted. At this four-year anniversary of the spill, our law firm and the other lawyers appointed by the court to represent the individuals and businesses affected by the spill (together called "Class Counsel") continue to urge BP to honor the commitments it made to the victims of its disaster, especially in light of new environmental studies showing the spill damage is worse than estimated, and will continue to impact the Gulf and its residents for years to come.

Class Counsel Fights to Hold BP to its Promises

Ever since BP’s about-face, our law firm and the other Class Counsel lawyers have steadfastly urged BP to acknowledge the fairness of the settlement – a settlement that now both the federal district court and the 5th Circuit appellate court have found to be fair and reasonable – and to keep the promises it made to the people of the Gulf Coast.

It is a battle on many fronts, as BP simultaneously has made numerous appeals to the Fifth Circuit, halted claims payments, attacked the integrity and performance of the Court-appointed Settlement Claims Administrator, and waged a PR campaign maligning the settlement in the media. The millions spent on that campaign could have been used by BP to pay claims under its settlement obligation.

As it stands now, two panels of Fifth Circuit have rejected BP’s arguments, but BP has asked the Fifth Circuit to reconsider those decisions. Nevertheless, LCHB and the other Class Counsel lawyers remain intent on holding BP to its word and ensuring that the settlement is enforced and that payments resume until all eligible individuals and businesses are fully compensated.

New Studies Show Spill Damage to Ecosystem is Severe and Ongoing

Meanwhile, research continues to reveal the ongoing environmental devastation wreaked by the spill. Despite BP’s recent announcement ending its "active clean-up" of the coastline, the oil is not all gone – it continues to wash up on beaches and into marshes to this day, and researchers have found that oil on the seafloor is not degrading, but instead clumps and swirls throughout the water column in what they call a "dirty blizzard." A recent study found that this leftover oil, broken down into small particles by chemical dispersants, is more toxic than fresh oil, and poses a long-term threat to the entire Gulf food chain.

The harmful effects of all this oil on Gulf wildlife is already vividly apparent. Two new studies revealed serious damage to numerous critical species: dolphins suffering anemia, diseased livers and lungs, stillborn births, and becoming stranded in unusual numbers; Bluefin tuna suffering irregular heartbeats and dying of heart attacks; and hundreds of endangered sea turtles washing up dead on beaches. The continued presence of oil and dispersant chemicals in the water column will only exacerbate the harm to wildlife by posing a continuing health threat, reducing survival, and affecting their ability to reproduce. There are also signs of long-term damage to the physical environment of the Gulf, as the death of oil-suffocated marsh grasses exposes the coastline to severe erosion and land loss. Additional environmental studies are ongoing, and future reports may reveal further impacts to the Gulf’s fragile and vital ecosystems.

By Annika K. Martin.