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Justice Department Begins Criminal Investigation Into BP Oil Disaster

Gulf oil spill workerImage by Ryan Marshall

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating BP for any criminal and civil wrongdoing related to the thousands of gallons of crude oil still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico following a April 20 rupture at the Deepwater Horizon well, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced at a news conference in New Orleans today.

BP will be investigated for violations of the Clean Water Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. If found guilty, the company could be held liable for cleanup efforts and reimbursement of government costs—though President Obama has already said that BP will pay heavily to clean up its mistake.  "We will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, anyone who has violated the law. We will prosecute anyone who has violated the law," Holder said during the conference.

The investigation comes after a growing number of critics have demanded more intense government involvement.  Scott West, the former special agent-in-charge at the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division, has been reminding anyone who will listen of BP's prior convictions, one in connection with a March 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery that killed 15 employees and injured 170 others and two criminal misdemeanor convictions for a pair of oil spills in Alaska in March and August 2006, relating to corroded pipelines that BP had failed to maintain. "BP is a convicted serial environmental criminal," West recently told "So, where are the criminal investigators? The well head is a crime scene and yet the potential criminals are in charge of that crime scene. Have we learned nothing from this company's past behavior?"

The Justice Department's investigation will heavily scrutinize the relationship between BP, Transocean, Halliburton, and the troubled Minerals Management Service, which was recently accused of allowing BP three changes in a day to the drilling permit for the Deepwater Horizon oil rig a week before it exploded and sank. MMS employees have also been investigated for taking bribes, using government computers to watch porn, and smoking meth before work, among other things.

Regardless of the outcome of the state and federal investigations, BP's future is up in the air. The company's stock dropped to an 18 year-low today as BP admitted that the oil disaster has already cost over $1 billion. With the leak now threatening to continue until at least August, is there any possible way that BP can recover?


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Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email