NOTE: This is part of Facing South's coverage from the Gulf Coast this week from the 2012 Gulf Gathering in Fairhope, Alabama.
Oil giant BP was supposed to go to trial this week in the massive civil suit filed by thousands of individuals and businesses from its 2010 Gulf of Mexico rig disaster.
But BP's much-anticipated day in court was delayed. The reason? Prospects of a multi-billion dollar settlement, in part facilitated by the Department of Justice which is party to the lawsuit.
The news of a possible deal sparked outrage from some Gulf Coast activitists, who want to see BP held legally liable for their actions and were looking forward to a full airing evidence before a judge. It also caused some back-pedaling from the Department of Justice, which insists it is still ready to go to trial against BP, and conflicing reports of the size and nature of the settlement.
Such public statements are likely little more than posturing as the groups hammer out the final details of a settlement deal that many say is near completion. This week, several reports say the current accord on the table gives $14 billion to plaintiffs, a figure that would be in addition to any fines levied by the federal government or lawsuits from state governments.
But as community and environmental advocates point out, the trial is about more than money. Also at stake is public access to information about what happened in the BP disaster and what consequences it's had on Gulf communities and the ocean and coastal environment -- evidence that could be entered in a courtroom but could end up sealed in a settlement agreement.
David Pettit of the Natural Resources Defense Council, along with others, argues that information collected about the impact of the BP disaster should be made public:
The Trustees and BP have collected a huge amount of data in connection with the Natural Resource Damage Assessment restoration planning process, but so far have kept most of it from the public on the theory that it needs to be protected for litigation. If and when BP agrees to a settlement including full funding of the Trustees’ restoration plan, as described above, the litigation threat will disappear and BP and the Trustees should make all of the restoration plan-related data public.
Along with access to information should be the ability of affected people to have legal options if new evidence comes to light about the spill's impact. Pettit is among those arguing for a strong reopener clause that wouldn't limit future lawsuits against BP.
Federal and state officials successfully pushed for a similar clause in their agreement with Exxon after the Valdez disaster in 1989, but it had a limited time-frame and scope -- caps Pettit argues should be lifted in a settlement over the Gulf spill.
Equally important is where the money goes, and who has control over it. After the Exxon Valdez disaster, the Alyeska Pipeline Company was ordered to fund a citizen's advisory panel to offer input on what projects to support. Gulf advocates agree such a panel is crucial, but it also invites another series of questions and possible battles: Who appoints the members? How much decision-making authority will they have?
Gulf community leaders don't have much time: With settlement negotiations reportedly moving fast -- a process that advocates at the Gulf Gathering this week in Alabama told us they have been completely left out of -- the window is closing fast on what issues will be made part of the agreement.
"Legally, this is our last big chance," said one grassroots leader from Mississippi. "If we want justice for what BP has put our communities through, this is it."