BP calls experts in court fight to avoid maximum penalty over Gulf oil spill



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NEW ORLEANS — BP struggled for 87 days to contain the millions of gallons of crude that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, but an expert witness on Monday called its cleanup response exemplary.

"They were very prepared," said Frank Paskewich, a retired Coast Guard captain and president of Clean Gulf Associates Inc., an oil spill response cooperative.

BP had a sound plan for reacting to the deadly explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, "and they pulled the trigger on that plan," coming "out of the gate quick," he said.

Paskewich also testified that 37 percent of the spilled oil was recovered or broken down by skimmers, dispersants and burning, compared to just 8 percent in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska's shore.

But he was forced to acknowledge that he isn't sure about the long-term impact of the chemical dispersants used to break up the oil. And Justice Department attorney Brandon Robers noted that his cooperative is funded by oil companies and led in part by BP.

BP is trying to convince U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier that it shouldn't pay the top civil penalty of $13.7 billion for polluting the gulf, since it has already spent $42 billion on cleanup, criminal penalties and civil settlements.

BP PLC's overall market value is $122 billion, but its lawyers have said that paying the top fine would strain the finances of BP Exploration and Production, the unit deemed responsible for the spill. Government lawyers countered that any fines can be borne by more than one part of the corporation.

Last week, a government accounting expert testified that the spill did not stop the company's growth. He found that BP's assets totaled $315 billion on June 30, 2014, up from $236 billion on June 30, 2009.

The government also seeks a penalty of more than $1 billion from Anadarko, a minority partner in the Macondo well.

The judge isn't expected to rule until April at the earliest. He already found that BP acted with "gross negligence" in the explosion, which caused its Macondo well to send clouds of oil billowing to the surface. He also found that 3.19 million barrels of oil were spilled, with a maximum penalty of $4,300 per barrel.

In this latest phase of the trial, government experts have described environmental, economic and social damage, and BP has disputed much of that testimony, arguing that the Gulf's environment and economy came back strong.

Laura Folse, a BP executive who runs a Gulf restoration initiative set up by BP, testified that there's little evidence of buried oil along the Gulf Coast, and no reason to fear that large amounts of oil offshore could wash ashore. She said BP has teams on the coast ready to do more cleanup, just in case.

Also on Monday, BP called on a Mississippi medical doctor who testified there was no evidence that oil spill workers and Gulf communities were exposed to unhealthy levels of chemicals during the spill. Dr. Robert Cox said the levels of chemicals from spilled oil and dispersants were well within safe levels. He cited federal and state reports to back up his statements.

Given that nearly five years have passed since the spill, Cox said the absence of medical reports showing adverse health effects from the spill proves that it was not a danger to humans.

"Compare that to the Twin Towers. We know people were exposed to high levels of dust, and within two years we were seeing those health effects," he said.

Mike Utsler, a former BP executive who oversaw the company's response, testified that the Coast Guard repeatedly praised BP's actions after the spill. He recalled one Coast Guard official saying that BP was "putting the capital R in responsible party."

The federal RESTORE Act, passed after the spill, would set aside 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalties for environmental and economic restoration projects along the Gulf Coast, and set aside the rest in a federal trust fund to cover the costs of future spills.

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