SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Officials from BP, formerly British Petroleum, will be back in a New Orleans courtroom next week. It's part of a complex federal case that will ultimately determine responsibility in damages for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. And that's the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. NPR's Debbie Elliott's been following the trial and joins us. Deb, thanks for being with us.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Glad to be here.
SIMON: Remind us of what's at stake in this phase of the case.
ELLIOTT: You know, this is a civil case. It's a civil trial that's been brought by the U.S. Justice Department and Gulf States, and they're suing BP and the other companies that were involved in the Deep Water Horizon explosion. This is being heard by a judge, not a jury. It will determine ultimately, you know, who is to blame for the accident and how much will be paid in penalties for the spill.
Judge Barbier has already heard testimony after phase one of the trial about a cascade of problems that led up to the April, 2010 well blowout, you know, that exploded the Deep Water Horizon rig, 11 rig workers were killed, and then oil started spewing and unleashed about a three-month gusher in the Gulf of Mexico.
SIMON: And I gather that at the heart of this second phase of the trial is a disagreement between the company and the government about the amount of oil that spilled.
ELLIOTT: Right. This is the phase where Judge Barbier will determine how much oil actually made it into the Gulf of Mexico. The Justice Department estimates that about 4.2 million barrels of oil spewed from the out of control well, but BP thinks it's more like 2.4 million barrels. So that's what Judge Barbier is going to have to figure out, and in pretrial proceedings he has admitted that that's not going to be an easy task.
Scientists differ on even how to go about figuring out how much oil came from such a deep-water well. That has been a source of contention from the beginning. Early days of the spill, BP and the Coast Guard released figures that turned out to be drastically lower than what was actually flowing into the Gulf.
SIMON: And how does the amount of oil that spilled figure into any finding the judge has to make?
ELLIOTT: You know, it's a really critical number because ultimately Judge Barbier is going to determine how much BP and its partners should pay in Clean Water Act fines and other environmental penalties under the Oil Pollution Act and we're talking billions of dollars at stake. BP will be fined based on how much oil escaped the well. That could range from $1100 a barrel up to $4300 a barrel if the judge finds gross negligence.
So when you do that math pretty quickly, you're talking this could be up to $18 billion at stake here. And, because Congress has since passed a law called the Restore Act, the bulk of that money will end up coming back to the five Gulf States to be used for projects that can restore the ecosystem and the economy.
SIMON: Which raises the question, more than three years after the BP spill, how much has the Gulf Coast recovered and what remains to be done?
ELLIOTT: You know, there are still some problems, but in general, looking at the broad five state area, traditional tourism and fishing industries are for the most part back, and you don't have the massive oiling that we saw in the wake of the spill. However, you still have evidence that there is oil in the Gulf. Tar balls tend to show up pretty regularly on beaches along the North Florida shore, they Alabama shore, the Mississippi shore.
And in Louisiana, which was, you know, closest to the spill point, there are still more than 200 miles of shore and wetlands that still have evidence of oil today. This summer, a giant tar mat surfaced just off Louisiana's coast. So there's always this concern that there's oil that remains in the Gulf and that will continue to be a problem as it gets churned up by tropical storms, hurricanes, and it resurfaces and comes back to shore.
The environmental damages assessment is underway. It continues, and that's still a big question mark, you know. Just this week a new study came out showing that there's been a reduction in biodiversity on the sea floor near the site of the BP well, but scientists say they're just beginning to understand what the impact is and it really could take decades to fully understand what happened to the Gulf ecosystem because of this disaster.
SIMON: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thanks so much.
ELLIOTT: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.