Environmental

BP managers could face manslaughter charges for Deepwater Horizon deaths

BP managers responsible for decisions governing the Deepwater Horizon platform’s operations may face manslaughter charges for the deaths of 11 workers who were killed when the rig exploded last April 20, according to a Bloomberg report. The federal investigation also stretches to the top of BP’s hierarchy as it seeks to determine whether former BP CEO Tony Hayward withheld information, stonewalled investigators, or made statements contrary to his knowledge in his testimony before Congress during hearings last year.

Investigators are currently focusing on the events leading up to the fatal explosion as BP and Transocean workers were trying to seal the well that ultimately exploded a mile below the surface. Workers for the company planned to replace the Deepwater Horizon platform with a production rig that would pump crude oil and natural gas from the ground.

The rock formation surrounding the oil reservoir repeatedly cracked and collapsed on the hole as the companies drilled, prompting BP officials to make repeated changes to the well plan. A commission appointed by President Obama found that during this process, the companies made 11 decisions that directly contributed to the catastrophic blowout. Each of the faulty decisions, the commission determined, saved time and increased risks, including moving ahead with risky drilling operations without the recommended equipment, failing to test the well for stability, and misinterpreting the results of other critical tests.

Managers in charge of the drilling operations, seven of whom worked on shore, ignored Halliburton’s warnings to use 21 centralizers to stabilize the cement plugging the well because of its volatility. To save time, the managers chose to use just six centralizers that were on hand.

They also chose to skip a test that would have determined whether the cement seal was strong enough to contain the oil and gas and prevent it from shooting up to the surface. Instead, the companies removed 2,600 pounds of mud from the drill hole, which weakened the seal and set off the explosion on the rig.

David Uhlmann, a former chief of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section, told Bloomberg he expected federal prosecutors would charge managers with seaman’s manslaughter, which carries a more serious penalty than manslaughter, with up to 10 years in prison upon conviction.

University of Maryland law professor Jane Barrett told Bloomberg that charging individual managers in this case would be significant to environmental safety cases because it might help change behavior.

“They typically don’t prosecute employees of large corporations,” said Barrett, who spent 20 years prosecuting environmental crimes at the federal and state levels. “You’ve got to prosecute the individuals in order to maximize, and not lose, the deterrent effect.”