Jun 1, 2010 4:23 PM by Bea Karnes, News First 5

U.S. launches criminal probe of BP spill

Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday that federal authorities have opened criminal and civil investigations into the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.

Holder would not specify which companies or individuals might be the targets of the probe. He said federal clean air and pollution laws give him the power to open the investigations.

Federal agencies, including the FBI, are participating in the probe and "if we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will be forceful in our response," Holder told reporters after meeting with state and federal prosecutors in New Orleans.

The Coast Guard, for its part, said Tuesday that crews are checking reports of oil reaching Mississippi and Alabama shorelines. That came after officials widened the region under surveillance to include those states.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen told reporters at a news briefing that the response was happening as he spoke. Oil was reported in the western Mississippi Sound and tarballs were reported on Alabama's Dauphin Island, he added.

The Mobile Press-Register said one of its reporters had seen a slick in the Mississippi Sound some three to four miles south of Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Earlier Tuesday, the Unified Incident Command said in a statement that it had "aggressively increased surveillance by air and sea. ... Additional beach support teams have been mobilized on shore to respond as well."

Shorelines along Florida's Panhandle were included in the widened surveillance.

Federal forecasters on Monday had warned that oil could wash ashore in Mississippi and Alabama by Wednesday.

Alabama's Mobile Bay could be covered by a light sheen by Wednesday morning, and then hit Baldwin County shores by noon, forecasters said.

Efforts to create a floating gate of booms at the mouth of the bay failed, but officials are optimistic that skimming equipment can clean up any sheen.

The slick has spread over 100 miles of Louisiana's fragile coast, but until now Mississippi and Alabama had escaped lightly, with only scattered tar balls and oil debris reaching their coasts.

The forecast was a sober reminder that oil from the unchecked spill, broken up and carried by winds and ocean currents, could threaten a vast area of the U.S. Gulf Coast, including tourism mecca Florida, as well as Cuba and Mexico.

Allen also said that BP, in its latest fix attempt, was making its first major cut with super sheers that weigh 46,000 pounds and resemble a giant garden tool. The company will also use a powerful diamond-edged cutter the resembles a deli slicer to try to make a clean cut above the blowout preventer, then will lower a cap over it with a rubber seal.

It could be as many as three days before the oil can be siphoned to the surface, Allen said.

In Washington, President Barack Obama vowed that if laws were broken in the devastating Gulf of Mexico oil spill, those responsible would be prosecuted and pledged changes to avert future disasters.

Obama, speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden after meeting the co-chairs of a new oil spill commission, said his administration was ready to step up government response to the spill, pledging to "triple the manpower" in the area.

"My solemn pledge is we will bring those responsible to justice," Obama said.

He also said energy giant BP would be held accountable for financial losses from what he called the "greatest environmental disaster of its kind in our history."

Obama said the independent commission investigating the Gulf oil spill will thoroughly examine the disaster and its causes to ensure that the nation never faces such a catastrophe again.

The president said that if laws are insufficient, they'll be changed. He said that if government oversight wasn't tough enough, that will change too. And Obama said if laws were broken, those who were responsible will be prosecuted.

Obama said the leaders of the commission have his support to follow the facts wherever they lead. The commission will be similar to those that looked into the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979.

The spill, which has eclipsed the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster as the biggest in U.S. history, entered its 43rd day as BP prepared a new and untested plan to use a dome to funnel oil gushing from a well a mile beneath the sea to a tanker on the surface.

The British oil giant's shares sank another 15 percent Tuesday following the failure of its "top kill" attempt to plug the leak Saturday. The company said the cost, so far, of dealing with the spill was some $990 million.




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