On November 15, British Petroleum plead guilty to 14 criminal charges in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history and one that took the lives of 11 people and severely damaged not only marine and wildlife habits but also the fishing and tourism industries. Public outcry raged as black crude oil from the well head gushed without pause for three months at a startling rate of 60,000 barrels a day. Live footage of the plume that billowed 4,000 feet below the water’s surface was broadcast over the Internet around the world, and around the clock.
As part of its settlement, the multi-national corporation agreed to pay $4.5 billion in fines and other penalties, much of which will be dispersed between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences. But the looming question that remains to be answered in court is whether the company will be found to have been grossly negligent under the guidelines of the Clean Water Act, a culpability that could bring an additional $21 billion in pollution fines.
The fact that the Deepwater Horizon case can even be argued in court—and that BP can be held up to legitimate public scrutiny under the Clean Water Act—is a testament to the prescient work of The Junior League of Toledo and others. In 1965 they used the dumping of chemicals into the Maumee River by manufacturers—and the subsequent fouling of the watershed—as a compelling platform for water safety advocacy. Following the production and distribution of “Fate of a River,” a documentary that chronicled the river’s harm to the environment, members of the League wound up testifying before Congress in hearings that led to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.