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Spill Engages Federal Investigators In A Balancing Act

As oil continues to spew from the blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration faces pressure to launch a criminal probe. But it also needs the help of the companies at the heart of the disaster in order to stop the gusher. It's a delicate balancing act that has federal investigators treading carefully.

Speaking recently on the ABC News show This Week, Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the issue gingerly.

"I have sent down representatives from the Justice Department to examine what our options are with regard to the activities that occurred there and whether or not there has been misfeasance, malfeasance on the part of BP or Oceana," Holder said.

But two federal sources tell NPR that prosecutors aren't going to issue subpoenas or send agents to conduct interviews until the immediate crisis ends. Instead, authorities are asking BP, Transocean and Halliburton to preserve documents about the deep sea operation.

Competing Priorities

Top prosecutors in the Gulf states are monitoring the rig and the cleanup. And the Justice Department's civil division and environmental unit have visited the site. Eventually the FBI and agents from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department will span out in search of clues.

As one U.S. official says: "Every bit of the focus is on stopping this thing."

Congressional Democrats have urged the Justice Department to launch a full-blown criminal probe. Lawmakers are asking Justice to find out whether BP gave false assurances about its ability to handle a disaster.

But Holder says the department has to balance competing priorities.

"Our primary concern at this point is to try to make sure that we keep that oil off-shore, that we disperse it, that we scoop it up, that we burn it, that we do all those kinds of things so that it can't get to shore," Holder said.

Comparisons To Exxon's Spill, Massey's Mine Disaster

The incident in the Gulf is much bigger and more complicated than the Exxon Valdez oil spill two decades ago.

Exxon pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act and other charges. The company ultimately coughed up more than a billion dollars in criminal and civil penalties.

David Uhlmann, former chief of the Justice Department's environmental crimes unit, says investigators could use the Clean Water Act and other laws in a possible negligence case.

But Uhlmann says the government also needs the companies to cooperate; the scenario is different from Massey Energy Co.'s mining disaster in West Virginia earlier this year. There, FBI agents spanned out immediately to interview miners about safety lapses.

"The Massey case is somewhat more self-contained," Uhlmann said. "The tragedy occurred and the government was able to quickly shift into full investigative mode."

For now, officials at Justice hesitate even to say whether they have uncovered any signs of negligence at the oil rig.

Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama quizzed the Justice Department's Tom Perrelli about the case in a committee hearing on the spill, asking to what extent the FBI is involved. Perrelli said he couldn't comment.

Meanwhile, BP is conducting its own investigation. In a statement, BP said a number of companies are involved and it's too early to say who's at fault.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.