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From Oiled Shores to the Courtroom: NPR's Debbie Elliott on the BP Oil Spill

Christy Haynes/NPR

Debbie Elliott is NPR’s national correspondent based in Alabama. She has covered the 2010 BP oil spill, and its aftermath, since the beginning.

Reporting in Terrebone Parish in 2010, Elliott met the Chauvin family that had been shrimpers for five generations before the disaster. Now covering the trial over BP’s liability for the spill, Elliott tells WRKF’s Ashley Westerman that family story is one that has stuck with her.

ELLIOTT: We discovered that they ended up being one of the first local crews to go out and help try to contain the oil spill. And hearing their first-hand account of that was just riveting. Sort of how they retooled their shrimp trawlers into devices to put out boom and collect oil.

Then we found out that this family, early on like a great-grandfather had had some concerns when the oil and gas industry first came to Louisiana, and we had the oldest member of this family sort of recount that story that he was told when he was young. And it was just fascinating to sort of link the history of the oil and gas industry and the fishing and shrimping industry in Louisiana, and the tell of what has happen to Louisiana’s coast line over the past two or three generations in the context of what was happening during the real crisis of the BP oil spill.

WESTERMAN: Let’s talk a little bit about that crisis. You’ve been in the courtroom for some of the BP trial that finally got underway earlier last month. Has there been anything else revealed in court further than what we already know?

ELLIOTT: You know, I don’t know if anything new has come out in court. The picture of what happen is emerging and is right in line with some of the information that had come out before. But I think it’s the first time where all in one place it’s being put together.  And, you know, what is emerging is a picture, and this is what investigators told us after the spill, of where a series of mistakes were made. Many things all happened that any one of them could have prevented if they had not happened might have prevented the oil spill. And that's, I think, what the sad story is of the whole thing, is that this was preventable.

WESTERMAN: So considering how the trial is going and that this story is taking shape in the courtroom. In your opinion, in the end do you think BP will bow out of the proceedings and settle?

ELLIOTT:You know that’s what analysts expect; I have no way of knowing if that will happen.  But you know if you at look how BP has handled other parts of its liability to date, that’s exactly what the company has done. Stock holders like the certainty of knowing exactly what your liability is and a settlement offers you that certainty. And analysts expect that this case could be settled before it reaches its end. But you know a lot of people thought it would never reach a courtroom in the first place and here we are. So, who knows?  

WESTERMAN: And then of course there’s the question of where all the fines and settlement money will go. The Restore Act did designate 80 percent of that money for the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund, but how open ended is the spending of those funds?

ELLIOTT: You know I think different states have different plans. For example, the state of Alabama has a council that will decide how that money is spent and it’s made up of entirely elected officials from gulf coast towns and cities and counties. In the state of Florida, I believe, it will be county officials that have the ability to spend that money.  So each state has its own way of figuring out where that money will go. And there is much freedom, you know, those are funds that can be used to not only restore environmental damage, but could also be spent to restore economic damage, could help rebuild roads, could help re-nourish beaches, you know, it’s sort of open ended of how that money could be spent.

The other part of this case, BP under the Oil Pollution Act is legally responsible for restoring any damage that it has done to natural resources in the oil spill. That money has to be spent you know to restore the ecosystem and that will be under federal oversight in conjunction with the state. So, that will be much more directed towards environmental projects.  In Louisiana’s case, because it was sort of ground zero for a lot of the damage in terms of damage to wetlands and had more shoreline oil than the other states. Louisiana could stand to get more of that pot of money, so to speak.