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BP Could Be Fined Billions for Largest Oil Accident in History

August 3, 2010 at 6:56 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: This was a critical day in the summer of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The moment finally arrived for BP engineers to try shutting down the source of the oil, once and for all.

Crews prepared for much of the day before beginning the operation to seal the runaway Macondo well permanently. The procedure is called static kill. It will pump heavy drilling mud through the temporary cap that has held the oil back since last month. The mud is three times denser than oil and should force the petroleum back down the well.

Then, cement will be injected to ensure a final seal. The entire process will take between 33 and 61 hours, if all goes as planned. A similar procedure called top kill failed around Memorial Day, because the pressure from the well at that time was too great. Officials say the chances of success are far better now, with the cap keeping the well under control.

In Houston today, national incident commander Thad Allen had a guardedly optimistic take.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN (RET.), National Incident Commander: This is a really positive step forward. It’s going to be good news in a time where there hasn’t been a lot of good news. But I don’t think it should be cause for premature celebration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Instead, Allen said the ultimate resolution will come when a relief well intersects and further seals the blown-out well, in what’s called a bottom kill. That could come next week.

BP executives said yesterday that procedure may not even be necessary if the static kill works. But Allen pointedly overrode that view today.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: I have always said the relief wells are the final answer. I have talked with senior BP leadership in the last 24 hours, including Bob Dudley, Lamar McKay, Andy Inglis, and the team that is here working on it. There is no daylight between us. This will not be done until the relief wells are done. That’s from the national incident commander.

QUESTION: But did BP say…

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: That is — that is understood by everybody.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the meantime, a federal task force of scientists issued a new estimate, that more than 200 million gallons of oil flowed into the Gulf from April 20 to mid-July. That would make it the largest oil spill in history.

Under the Clean Water Act, BP might be liable to pay anywhere from $5.4 billion to as much as $21 billion, if the company is cited for gross negligence or willful misconduct. By some estimates, 33 million gallons of the total spill were collected or burned off, which would lower the fine.

As for the people of the Gulf, 25,000 square miles of federal fishing areas have reopened so far, about a third of what was closed. The reaction has been mixed among fishermen, who make their living on the water.

GEORGE BARISICH, United Commercial Fishermen’s Association: It will open up more areas for shrimping, that they will be able to bring more shrimp in, which will help the supply in the market as well.

LARRY SPAHN, commercial fisherman: Nobody is talking about the dispersants. You can see the oil, but you can’t see dispersant. So people are going to be hesitant about buying the seafood.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Allen said today that extensive testing ensures the safety of any ocean bounty.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: There are three general conditions that need to be met to reopen the fisheries. Number one, there has to be a certain amount of time where there has been no oil detected in the water. Second, two tests have to be done on the fish that are captured. One is a sensory tests. These are by people that are experienced, that can understand whether or not there’s hydrocarbons in the samples. And the third is actually a lab test.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But with so many out of work for so long, reopening fishing grounds alone will not be enough. BP announced today a new damage claims process will speed up payment to businesspeople who are suffering.