BP criminal fine brings some relief to spill-hit Gulf residents

NEW ORLEANS Fri Nov 16, 2012 6:30pm EST

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, in this April 21, 2010 file handout image. REUTERS/U.S. Coast Guard/Files/Handout

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, in this April 21, 2010 file handout image.

Credit: Reuters/U.S. Coast Guard/Files/Handout

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Gulf Coast residents expressed two main emotions the day after BP Plc. (BP.L) agreed to pay $4.5 billion and plead guilty to criminal misconduct stemming from the disastrous 2010 oil spill: relief that BP was being held accountable, and anger that it took more than two years to happen.

"It was criminal what they did, and 11 people died, so BP needs to be held accountable," said Acy Cooper, a commercial fishering boat captain in Venice, La., a jumping-off point for offshore oil workers and fishermen headed out into the Gulf of Mexico.

London-based oil major BP on Thursday agreed to pay $4.5 billion in penalties and plead guilty to criminal misconduct in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which caused the worst U.S. offshore oil spill ever and killed 11 rig workers.

The government also indicted the two highest-ranking BP supervisors aboard the Deepwater Horizon during the April 2010 disaster on 23 counts including manslaughter, and charged another former BP official with low-balling oil spill estimates the company provided to U.S. officials.

More than two years after BP's Macondo well fouled shorelines from Texas to Florida, eclipsing in severity the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, large portions of the offshore grounds that Cooper has plied for nearly 40 years are still closed, and he still sees evidence of the spill.

"Every time you go out there you start stirring it up, and you've got an oil sheen behind the boat," Cooper said.

BP's deal with the Justice Department requires it to pay $2.4 billion into a fund that will be used to restore the Gulf Coast's oil-damaged barrier islands, marshlands and other delicate ecosystems.

Garret Graves, senior environmental advisor to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, said the deal marks long-needed progress.

"After 2 and a half years, we finally have gotten to a point where BP is going to be required to spend more money on restoration," Graves said. "It's pretty clear the Department of Justice is aggressively pursuing the best interest of the Gulf Coast."

After Thursday's plea deal, BP still faces billions of dollars in additional liabilities from civil penalties under the Clean Water Act, which could be the subject of a civil court case now slated to get under way in New Orleans in February.

"This is a drop in the bucket compared to the remaining liabilities we have to do on the Clean Water Act," Graves said.

Despite laudatory language by US officials, some local officials accused Uncle Sam of cutting BP a sweetheart deal.

"With the arrogance of BP, $4.5 billion is no where near enough," said Tony Kennon, mayor of Orange Beach, Alabama, saying the spill shook his city's tourism-centered economy to the core. "The Justice Department took the easy way out. It was a brother-in-law deal."

For John Fitzgerald, President of Saunders Yachtworks, Inc. a family-owned boat repair company in Orange Beach, Ala., the sting of the oil spill has passed, thanks in part to a legal settlement he received from BP.

"I am not as focused on it as I was when my business and livelihood was on the line," Fitzgerald said. "Our business was good last year and we are looking forward to a bright future. We are almost finished with a new facility in Gulf Shores."

For others that did not receive a settlement, like Vickie Connolly, owner of the Pelican Pub on Dauphin Island, Ala., the future is decidedly less bright.

"I think it is just a money grab," Connolly said. "They will just put it into their stupid programs. I don't like seeing people spending other people's money, especially money they don't have to spend."

(Additional reporting by Verna Gates in Birmingham, Ala., Writing by Chris Baltimore)

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