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David Yarnold: The BP spill four years later

Four years after the largest offshore oil disaster in U.S. history, scientists are still trying to come to terms with the toll that the Deepwater Horizon tragedy wreaked on the birds, sea life, waters and habitats of the Gulf of Mexico. Multitudes of creatures and habitats were wiped out — and continue to suffer — but outrageously, environmental restoration has barely even begun.

And BP — having already pleaded guilty to criminal negligence — is hard at work delaying justice.

BP’s strategy is clear: Postpone the inevitable payments for their environmental negligence and instead try to convince you that they’re being fleeced by two-bit Louisiana shysters. You’ve seen those full-page ads, right?

This is a cynical calculation about the time value of money — an $18 billion judgment against BP that happens two years from now is cheaper than $18 billion if it were awarded today. BP has nothing but contempt for the judge and the court in New Orleans. The U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier has called BP’s continuous attacks on his rulings “deeply disappointing.”

Instead of trying to fix what it broke, BP is spending the fourth anniversary of the spill — which killed 11 men — pulling every legal trick it can to drag out the court proceedings that will determine how much the foreign oil giant has to pay to repair the environmental harm it caused. BP’s lawyers have played a major role in delaying the final phase of federal court hearings in New Orleans until 2015 — a full two years from the time the trial began, and nearly five years from the time of the explosion.

That is not only shameful, it vividly demonstrates the company’s utter disregard for the urgency of making reparations to the damaged environment and the birds, wildlife, sea creatures and people that depend on it.

The Deepwater Horizon oil disaster is the largest violation of the Clean Water Act in the history of the nation: an estimated 170 million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. That’s roughly 15 times the amount dumped into Alaska’s Prince William Sound when the Exxon Valdez slammed into a reef 25 years ago — another toxic anniversary.

In the aftermath of the spill, Congress acted expeditiously to establish the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council — made up of representatives of five states and six federal agencies — to distribute and oversee the BP Clean Water Act penalty funds in the five Gulf States.

But now BP has tied the council’s hands. The groundwork has been laid for one of the most significant environmental restoration efforts in modern times. The most ambitious restoration plans cannot begin until BP is held accountable and pays under the Clean Water Act, which was created to penalize negligent companies for precisely the kind of disaster as the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Audubon biologist Melanie Driscoll recently told veteran Louisiana reporter Bob Marshall that the death toll for birds — let alone the ongoing effects — is still poorly understood, but that the number could be in the six figures. American White Pelicans have carried BP’s oil and Corexit oil dispersant on their feathers all the way to Minnesota, where it contaminated their eggs. Marine biologists are alarmed too.

Meanwhile, oil keeps washing ashore on some stretches of coast. Environmental restoration at a massive scale must get started as quickly as possible.

BP has agreed to pay reparations to the families of the men who died in the explosion, it has paid off some businesses and individuals for some of their economic loss, and it paid for the immediate cleanup of the visible oil spilled, as it was required to do under U.S. law.

It has pleaded guilty to 14 criminal counts ranging from lying to felony manslaughter. But BP has not contributed a dime for the largest violation ever of the Clean Water Act, the money most vital to environmental reparations.

The Justice Department has to press on in the face of BP’s callous and cynical machinations. Nothing less than full accountability under the law — and as quickly as possible — will qualify as anything close to justice for what BP did.

David Yarnold is the president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. He wrote this for the McClatchy News Service.

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