* Looking at violations of several environmental laws
* BP shares move lower after confirmation of probe
* Not the first time BP has been in Justice Dept sights
(Adds BP comment, background on Exxon Valdez)
By Ed Stoddard
NEW ORLEANS, June 1 The U.S. government has
launched a widely expected criminal and civil investigation
into BP Plc's (BP.L) massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico,
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said on Tuesday, ratcheting
up pressure on the beleaguered British oil company.
"We have begun both a criminal as well as a civil
investigation as is our obligation under the law," Holder told
reporters after meeting with state and federal prosecutors in
New Orleans. "Our environmental laws are very clear."
Federal agencies, including the FBI, are participating in
the probe and "if we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will
be forceful in our response," he said, adding that prosecutors
had a "sufficient basis" to start a criminal probe.
"BP will cooperate with any inquiry that the Department of
Justice undertakes, just as we are doing in response to the
other inquiries that already are ongoing," the company said in
During his first visit to the disaster site where he took a
a tour of the spill, Holder said he saw "oil for miles and
miles, oil that we know has already affected plant and animal
life along the coast."
Confirmation of the probe, which Holder said started "some
weeks ago," sent BP's shares down further after already getting
hammered most of Tuesday. The stock plunged 15 percent, or
$6.43, to close at $36.52 at the end regular trading on the New
York Stock Exchange.
Pressure has been building on BP and the Obama
administration to stop the spewing oil, now in its 43rd day and
no end in sight. Legal experts had predicted that it was only a
matter of time before a criminal and civil probe would begin.
Holder declined to say who were the targets of the
investigation, but the Justice Department has already demanded
that at least three companies involved in the spill, BP,
Transocean Ltd (RIGN.S) (RIG.N) and Halliburton Co (HAL.N),
preserve their records related to the accident.
The Justice Department will look for violations of the
Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird
Treaty Act and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which can be used
to hold them liable for cleanup costs and reimbursement for
government efforts [nN01133693].
Additionally, Holder said that "nothing is off the table at
this point" with regard to the range of charges prosecutors
could pursue, including traditional criminal charges if they
find false statements were made.
"As our review expands in the days ahead, we will be
meticulous, we will be comprehensive, and we will be
aggressive," Holder told reporters. "We will not rest until
justice is done."
However, he did acknowledge that the government's first
priority was to stop the gushing well and clean up the oil.
The April 20 explosion aboard the Transocean Deepwater
Horizon rig killed 11 workers and injured 17 others. Holder
said that there could also be charges related to the "untimely
and tragic deaths of those 11 rig workers."
This is not the first time BP has been in the Justice
Department's sights. In October 2007 the company agreed to pay
more than $370 million in fines and restitution to resolve
several environmental and fraud allegations including criminal
Those included a deadly explosion at a Texas refinery in
2005, pipeline leaks at the Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska in
2006, and an attempt to corner the U.S. propane market in
After the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, Exxon Mobil in 1991 paid
just over $1 billion in penalties and damages to settle
criminal and civil charges brought by the Justice Department.
The U.S. government and State of Alaska sought another $92
million for restoration efforts from Exxon but they are still
at loggerheads over it.
(Additional reporting and writing by Jeremy Pelofsky in
Washington with Chris Baltimore in Houston, Editing by Cynthia