Jackson attorney Hiram Eastland has filed a civil suit on behalf of Gulf Coast property owners, alleging that BP infiltrated a U.S. government agency and knowingly lied about its ability to stop an oil spill like the one soiling the Gulf of Mexico.
Eastland is one of several attorneys, including Pensacola, Fla., attorney Levin Papantonio, who are filing a series of RICO class-action complaints in Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana in U.S. District Court against Transocean Ltd. and BP, the companies responsible for the continuing massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"In order to obtain oil and offshore drilling and billions of dollars, the oil companies lied through their teeth about their ability to address a deepwater oil spill," said Eastland, who is currently representing plaintiffs in Florida but intends to add Mississippi plaintiffs this month.
"They made those representations to the American public and the regulatory agencies, and under the law, those kinds of misrepresentations in order to obtain money and property—and being fraudulent and concealing the fact that they knew they could not address it—is what you call mail and wire fraud."
BP spokesman Toby Odone said the company will not speak on matters in litigation. "That's the company policy," Odone told the Jackson Free Press last Thursday.
The suit, which represents only one side of a legal argument, describes the Gulf of Mexico as being "in the midst of an ecological Armageddon that could literally destroy the marine and coastal environment and way of life for generations of Americans," and alleges that BP cultivated a corporate culture "fueled by greed, fraud, dishonesty and a disregard of numerous laws and regulations," thus causing the disaster.
Attorneys for plaintiffs, which include Florida property owners Robert Rinke, among others, reference the Occupational Health and Safety Administration's wide array of criminal fines levied against BP, including a record fine of $87 million for failing to address safety problems at BP's Texas City Refinery. BP was hit with an earlier $50 million fine for the same refinery following a 2005 explosion, which killed 15 workers. BP refineries in Ohio and Texas account for 97 percent of "egregious willful" violations OSHA handed out within the last three years, the suit states.
The suit also references a May 2010 shareholders' lawsuit, pending before U.S. District Court in New Orleans, alleging that BP "lobbied federal and state authorities to remove or decrease the extent of safety and maintenance regulation of the company's Gulf operations, claiming, … that ‘voluntary compliance' would suffice to address safety and environmental concerns." The shareholders' lawsuit—which has not been settled in favor of either BP or plaintiffs—also claims the company "continued to ignore and disregard safety issues concerning the company's deepwater operations, making purely cosmetic changes at the corporate level while ignoring the substance of the safety violations and the threat they posed to the entirety of the Gulf."
Plaintiffs in the suit allege that BP committed wire and mail fraud, and reference a Feb. 23, 2009, letter the company sent to the U.S. Minerals Management Service, the agency charged with regulating offshore drilling. In that document, plaintiffs say BP "minimized the prospect of any serious damage associated with a spill, calling any oil exposure ‘sub-lethal' to marine life." The letter also states that in the event of a blowout, the resulting spill "is unlikely to have an impact based on the industry-wide standards for using proven equipment and technology for such responses."
An exploration plan the company submitted to MMS April 6, 2009, repeated the claim that a major spill was "unlikely to have an impact based on the industry-wide standards for using proven equipment and technology … (and) BP's Regional Oil Response Plan, which addresses available equipment and personnel, techniques for containment and recovery and removal of the oil spill."
The suit points to a contradictory May 10, 2010, BP statement, however, that admitted that "all of the techniques being attempted or evaluated to contain the flow of oil on the seabed involve significant uncertainties because they have not been tested in these conditions before."
The class-action complaint criticizes BP officials working directly inside MMS, alleging that the oil industry, and BP in particular, engaged in a scheme to "infiltrate MMS with a culture of corruption."
"(BP) has systematically submitted unsubstantiated and erroneous Exploration and Oil Spill Response Plans and Lease Agreements, and it has been allowed to veto MMS efforts to implement additional safety rules and regulations that would have cost BP money to carry out," the complaint states.
Another letter referenced is a Sept. 14, 2009, document from BP to MMS discouraging a proposed governmental requirement of at least one audit of the company's safety program every three years, with the company arguing that the "industries (sic) current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary (auditing) programs … have been and continue to be very successful," which is a blatant mischaracterization of the facts, Eastland says.
The suit goes on to claim that MMS would bypass the requirement to procure an endangered-species permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration if it looked like the requirement would kill a potential drilling lease. It says the agency would also downgrade the findings of its own agency scientists' reports showing that a potential lease carried the possibility of significant environmental impact.
In other cases, MMS blatantly protected BP from prying public eyes. The suit references an Oct. 30, 2009, MMS letter refusing an information request from Food and Water Watch "seeking ‘as built' drawings of one of BP's drilling rigs." In its response, MMS denied the request on the basis that "MMS does not agree with your assessment of the potential for imminent danger to individuals or the environment… ."
Eastland said government employees "could have some problems" as the details of the suit come out in court.
"Some of the government people could end up being named themselves during the discovery process. Just saying ‘the government let us do it' won't cut it. They made a misrepresentation to the public," Eastland said.
I keep looking for information about Haliburton's complicity. Haliburton overcharged this country millions of dollars (if not billions)for contract work during the war in Iraq. Now they are directly involved in the decision making on the this blowout. Where is the inquisition on this company? When are they going to be investigated?