WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department is expected to announce as early as Wednesday its first significant legal action stemming from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a federal government source familiar with the matter said.
The source said the action involved the filing of civil lawsuits, rather than criminal charges, stemming from the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history and that it was expected to be announced at a news conference as early as Wednesday.
The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blowout, which began in April and was finally sealed in September, fouled resort beaches and fishing grounds, and led to hundreds of lawsuits against BP Plc and its partners over lost revenues and wages.
In June, Attorney General Eric Holder announced in New Orleans that the U.S. government had launched a criminal and civil investigation into the oil spill.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday the Justice Department is expected to join the hundreds of civil lawsuits that have been filed as a result of the spill and will allege violations of environmental protection regulations, which could trigger penalties under such laws as the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act.
“We’re not confirming it,” a Justice Department spokesman said of the newspaper report.
But the source, who declined to give further details, confirmed the government’s civil filing in federal court was expected on Wednesday.
The hundreds of civil lawsuits stemming from the spill have been consolidated in a New Orleans federal court and are being led by a committee of lawyers who represent injured workers and businesses.
The Justice Department has said in court filings it has claims stemming from the spill including the destruction of natural resources as well as lost tax and royalty revenues.
Penalties against BP under the Clean Water Act could top $20 billion if a court determines there was gross negligence.
In September, the Justice Department wrote to the court to say it might join the litigation and it requested a special “track” just for government lawsuits. Alabama and Louisiana have also sued over the spill.
The Justice Department said at that time it wanted to be separated from the decisions of the attorneys leading the civil lawsuits, most of which were brought for economic losses.
The judge has not decided the issue.
The April 20 explosion aboard the Transocean Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and injured 17 others. Holder has vowed to hold accountable those responsible for the spill.
additional reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington; Editing by Tim Dobbyn and Gunna Dickson