Four years ago Sunday, the BP oil spill shocked a nation and frightened the Keys

Associated PressApril 19, 2014 

The oil rig burns following the April 20, 2010, explosion. Eleven men died in the blast.

KEYSINFONET

Sunday marks the fourth anniversary of the explosion on the BP-operated drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, which killed 11 workers about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico and set off the nation's worst offshore oil disaster.

No oil made it to the Florida Keys but even the threat of oil caused a slowdown in summer tourism as many visitors cancelled trips. That slowdown resulted in at least $184 million being paid to Monroe County businesses and individuals who claimed financial losses stemming from the spill.

The money -- from more than 11,000 local claims -- came from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, set up for businesses and employees in Gulf coast communities to file for losses. BP paid the claims to resolve civil cases.

Another fund was created by the Restore Act, a federal law passed in 2012 to distribute money collected from Clean Water Act penalties for polluting Gulf waters with 200 million gallons of oil.

Keys governments and organizations have submitted Restore Act proposals for about $67 million in projects intended to help the economy or marine environment, but little money has been distributed.

There have been federal criminal prosecutions in Monroe County for wire fraud connected to the spill. Those convicted reportedly filed false BP-related claims from the Keys, or used stolen IDs to get BP claims money.

Key Wester Donald Sargent got 33 months and was ordered to pay $77,215 in restitution. David Bacon, also from Key West, was sentenced to 21 months and must pay $16,000 in restitution. Cleon Major, formerly of Key West, was sentenced to 9.17 years and has to repay $306,228 when he gets out.

What happened

The Deepwater Horizon well was drilling the night of April 20, 2010, when it was rocked by an explosion and began burning. The rig sank less than two days later and crude oil gushed into the Gulf from the blown-out Macondo well.

The well's location about a mile below the Gulf surface and the pressure of oil and natural gas erupting from it severely hampered efforts to cap the well. In July 2010, a cap was successfully placed over the well after an estimated 200 million gallons of oil escaped (the exact amount is one of many points that remain in dispute).
The collapsed rig remains on the Gulf bottom.

Monetary claims

Two phases of a trial in U.S. District Court have been held in New Orleans and a third is scheduled to begin in January dealing with matters of fault, questions of negligence and how much oil ultimately was spewed into the Gulf -- all of which will ultimately determine how much the oil giant BP will have to pay in penalties under the Clean Water Act.

BP estimates that since May 2010, it has paid out roughly $11 billion in claims to individuals and businesses over economic losses and damages, plus nearly $1.5 billion to the federal government.

In 2012, the company and a committee representing numerous plaintiffs agreed to a settlement resolving most economic and property damage claims. However, a court-appointed administrator's interpretation of that settlement remains in dispute.

Criminal cases

In 2012, BP agreed to pay $4.5 billion in a settlement with the U.S. government and to plead guilty to felony counts related to the deaths of the 11 workers and lying to Congress.

The figure includes nearly $1.3 billion in criminal fines -- the largest such penalty ever -- along with payments to several government entities. Two BP well-site leaders are charged with manslaughter, and a former executive is charged with lying to authorities.

In 2013, the Justice Department reached a $1.4 billion settlement with rig owner Transocean Ltd., requiring the Switzerland-based company to pay $1 billion in civil penalties and $400 million in criminal penalties and plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of violating the Clean Water Act.

Also in December 2013, former BP engineer Kurt Mix was convicted in federal court of obstruction of justice after prosecutors said he deleted text messages to and from a supervisor and a BP contractor to stymie a grand jury's investigation of the spill. He has motions pending before the trial judge to have the jury's verdict thrown out.

Health issues

BP and plaintiffs agreed in 2012 to a settlement providing oil-spill cleanup workers and residents in specified areas close to the coast with payments for medical claims related to the spill. BP does not have an estimate of how much it will likely pay out. Lawyers have estimated as many as 200,000 people may benefit.

Environment

Oil from the busted well spread north after the blowout, eventually soiling marshes, beaches and barrier islands from Louisiana to Florida and forcing rich seafood grounds to be closed.

Rescue and cleaning centers were set up for animals affected by the spill. Researchers continue to monitor marshlands, marine life and oyster beds for lingering effects from the oil or from chemicals used to disperse the oil.

In the Keys, scores of people underwent hazardous-materials training.

KeysInfoNet staff supplemented this report.

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