NEW ORLEANS, April 17 (Reuters) - The first phase of a trial to determine blame for BP Plc's 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill came to an end on Wednesday, with the judge allowing 80 days for the determination of findings and conclusions.
It ended only three days before the three-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 people and caused the worst U.S. offshore spill.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier said he would allow 60 days for the filing of briefs, and then 20 more days for reply briefs, as the parties work toward a September start of the second phase of the trial, which will consider the amount of oil spilled in order to determine damages.
The trial was brought by the U.S. government, people and businesses affected, and states along the Gulf that had oil on their shores.
The first phase was to apportion blame between BP and its contractors - rig owner Transocean Ltd and cement provider Halliburton Co - and determine the level of negligence involved in the accident on April 20, 2010.
"I appreciate the fact that we were able to complete this trial in two months rather than the three months everyone projected when this began," Barbier told the court in New Orleans. "I know it's been demanding at times."
The first phase lasted just short of eight weeks.
On Wednesday, BP lawyers took a final shot at pushing more blame on to the two contractor companies. Lawyers showed video of two expert witnesses who analyzed cement used by Halliburton to plug the Macondo well and both found it unstable and said the slurry should have been remixed before it was used.
BP's final witness was Andrew Mitchell, a 40-year veteran of the offshore oil industry and now an International Safety Management Code consultant. Mitchell testified that Transocean's rig captain, Curt Kuchta, had four to eight minutes after the crisis began in which he could have activated the well's blowout preventer by pushing a button mounted on the wall in the bridge.
But Transocean's "confusing command structure" meant he waited for the offshore installation manager, Jimmy Harrell, to arrive on the bridge to activate the blowout preventer, Mitchell added.
"The result was that Captain Kuchta did not exercise his overriding responsibility or authority, nor did he take the last clear chance - the last clear chance - to save the ship, his crew and the environment," Mitchell said.
The day before, environmentalists and others protested outside the U.S. District Courthouse in New Orleans to mark the third anniversary of the Macondo disaster, and call BP to account for its lingering effects.
"Despite the impression some are trying to create, this disaster is far from over," said David Muth, director of Mississippi River Delta Restoration for the National Wildlife Federation. The spill sent more than 4 million barrels of oil into an "already stressed environment," he said, and affected dolphins, nesting birds, and fish.
"Crude oil and living things don't mix very well," he said.
Speakers asked Barbier to make a finding of gross negligence for BP, which could add billions to the Clean Water Act fines. Penalties would help pay for desperately needed coastal restoration projects, and act as a deterrent, they added.
Billy Nungesser, the Republican Parish President from Plaquemines Parish in New Orleans, noted he has a long history of working with the oil industry, both in private business and as a government official, and generally found industry officials to be much more responsive and responsible than BP has been.
"We've had many spills in my parish, small spills, and the companies go beyond the call of duty to clean it up, restore it and reimburse the parish," he said. "This company is giving all the oil industry a bad name. And they're not all bad people."
BP has provided for $42 billion to cover clean-up, fines and other liabilities.
The case is In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig "Deepwater Horizon" in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana, No. 10-md-02179.