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There have been thousands of oil and chemical spills in the waters in and around the United States, ranging from massive events like the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion to relatively small problems with fuel transfers. (1) The origins of petroleum spills can include sea vessels, drilling rigs, pipelines, terminals, tanker trucks, and service stations.
Petroleum spills often cause widespread damage to the environment; kill wildlife; contaminate the food chain; mar private and commercial property; pollute wells, aquifers, or other public water supplies; devastate coastal communities economically; close fisheries; and hobble tourism. (2)
One of the first major spills happened in 1969 in the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara, California, where a massive oil well blowout and the ensuing undersea faults resulted in the release into the environment of as much as 4.2 million gallons of crude oil, which traveled as far to the north as Pismo Beach and to Mexico in the south. (3)
Technology to assess the spill was limited at the time of the Santa Barbara blowout, and responders used a classified CIA U-2 spy plane to take aerial photographs, the first time one of the aircraft had been used for nonmilitary aerial photography. (4)
That environmental disaster — involving Union Oil’s “Platform A” — led to the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and National Marine Sanctuaries system. (5)
Ten years after Santa Barbara, in 1979, a 2-mile-deep exploratory well blew out in the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico south of Texas. The drilling platform above the well, which was known as IXTOC I, caught fire and collapsed into the area of the wellhead, making it difficult to control the blowout. The well spilled 10,000 to 30,000 barrels a day until it was capped on March 23, 1980, nearly 10 months after it blew. (6)
And a decade after IXTOC I, the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989, spilling 10.9 million gallons of its 53-million-gallon cargo, ultimately staining more than 1,100 miles of Alaskan coastline. (7) Officials estimate that the spill killed 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs. (8)
Even 20 years after the Exxon Valdez, some beaches still had oil contamination from the spill and some species of wildlife had yet to fully recover. (9)
Exxon paid $1 billion in fines and restitution for the disaster and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of killing migratory waterfowl. The captain of the Valdez, Joseph Hazelwood, went on trial, where he was acquitted of three charges, including operating a vessel while intoxicated. He was convicted of a single misdemeanor charge, the negligent discharge of oil, and sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service and $50,000 restitution. But his conviction was later overturned because of a federal law granting immunity from prosecution to people who report spills. After running aground, Hazelwood had radioed the Coast Guard and said, “Evidently we’re leaking some oil and going to be here for a while.” (10)
The biggest maritime oil spill in U.S. history happened on April 20, 2010, when there was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon Macondo oil well drilling platform, killing 11 workers. (11) It took 87 days to cap the well, and in that time, it is estimated 3.19 million barrels — more than 130 million gallons — of oil had escaped into the Gulf of Mexico. (12) The spill affected more than 1,000 miles of gulf shoreline and involved more than 33,000 cleanup workers. Research is being done to assess the long-term impact on human health. (13)
To put that quantity of leaked oil in perspective, the entire U.S. — every power plant and automobile and airplane — consumed an average of about 19.63 million barrels of oil per day in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. (14)
In the month or so after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, federal health officials reported seeing 125 patients with conditions including heatstroke, acute respiratory conditions, and skin, eye, and gastrointestinal conditions. (15) At the same time, officials reported spreading anxiety about the spill and its economic impact. State behavioral health agencies braced for an increase in depression, substance abuse, domestic violence, and suicide. (16)
The mental health issues were exacerbated by the fact that the spill happened five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated some of the same areas in Louisiana and Mississippi. (17) Researchers found 12% of people studied in the affected areas experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and 15% showed signs of serious mental illness, compared to national rates of 3% for post-traumatic stress and 6% for serious mental illness. (18)
Two years after the spill, about 20% of the population of two affected fishing communities that experienced lost income was found to be depressed. (19) One of the fishing communities studied, Baldwin County, Alabama, was directly exposed to the spilled oil, while the other, Franklin County, Florida, was indirectly affected, since oil didn’t reach its shoreline. (20)
The spill’s economic effects went beyond fishing and tourism, with restaurants, stores, banks, transportation, and other businesses experiencing losses, and municipalities and school boards losing tax revenues. (21)
Manmade disasters such as this create anger in communities, making it harder to recover emotionally than natural disasters. (22) Community connections are frayed in the face of such anger and as a consequence of distrust that’s caused by different amounts of damage settlements paid out to different people and businesses. (23)
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also estimated that between $527 million and $859 million were lost in recreational opportunities, including boating, fishing, and beach visits. (25)
Five years after the disaster, BP reached an agreement in principle with the U.S. and five Gulf states to settle civil claims against the company for a total of $18.7 billion. It was the largest environmental settlement in the history of the United States and the largest civil settlement ever with a single entity by the Department of Justice. (26)
When corporations make reckless, sometimes lethal, decisions, the consequences can be, and often are, devastating. No one will ever fully be able to calculate the costs — to lives, livelihoods, wildlife, the economy, and the world in which we live.
In the midst of such great tragedy, such as the BP Oil Spill, we can be thankful for those who step in and step up to help those who are suffering. National law firms such as Weitz & Luxenberg have earned a reputation for responding quickly when disaster strikes.
The BP Oil Spill of 2010 is just one such example. Straight from the get-go, Weitz & Luxenberg attorneys were on the scene and brought claims on behalf of thousands of injured people and businesses to hold BP accountable.
After roughly 6 years of fierce legal action and negotiations, Weitz & Luxenberg attorneys helped secure a $20 billion settlement on behalf of the many businesses, municipalities, and residents harmed by BP’s “grossly negligent” conduct.
Robin Greenwald, head of our Environmental, Toxic Torts, and Consumer Protection Litigation group served as a member of the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee for the litigation. Other W&L attorneys served on the Medical Benefits Settlement team, negotiating for BP’s commitment to provide compensation and preventive treatments. The Weitz & Luxenberg team also spent time processing claims for compensation for damages resulting from the spill on behalf of fishermen, hotels, restaurants, banks, municipalities, and school boards.
In 2008, the firm achieved another major victory against big oil, securing $423 million on behalf of those harmed by poisoned drinking water. In that instance, U.S. oil companies acknowledged they had contaminated 153 public water systems across the country with methyl tert-butyl ether, MTBE, a toxic gasoline additive. Ms. Greenwald successfully served our firm’s lead counsel, with attorney Will Walsh, and a team of professionals working alongside her in the fight for justice against these polluters.
In fact, time and again, if you look back 30 years, you’ll find Weitz & Luxenberg taking on the giant, seemingly untouchable corporations with a vigor, dedication, and prowess few other firms can match. No matter what the environmental crisis, you can be assured Weitz & Luxenberg will be right in the middle of the fray fighting on behalf of those whose lives have been put in danger through someone else’s negligence and irresponsibility.