U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder promises an aggressive criminal investigation of BP and its contractors for their actions leading up to the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. If history is any guide, don’t expect to see the CEO of BP in handcuffs, reports the Miami Herald. Over the years, the Justice Department has repeatedly pursued criminal charges in major environmental accidents, from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident a decade earlier. In most high-profile cases, criminal charges are brought mainly against the companies involved, while corporate executives typically escape punishment.
If the companies responsible for the Gulf spill are prosecuted and convicted of wrongdoing, they can expect millions of dollars in criminal fines — on top of any civil penalties — or even banishment from government contracts, experts say. “Federal statutes give [prosecutors] a lot of tools and a lot of flexibility for this kind of catastrophic event,” said Ronald Sarachan, who led the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section in the 1990s. Experts stress that the Gulf oil spill is unlike any other disaster in the past, threatening the coastlines of at least four states, and possibly gushing for months — and in the extent of the injuries it has caused. Given those factors, the Justice Department may push to hold individuals accountable. One strategy investigators will likely follow will be to determine whether BP or its contractors submitted false information to the government, either in drilling permits or safety documents.