NEW ORLEANS — Responding to criticism that it hasn't been forceful enough in its response to the largest oil spill in U.S. history, the Obama administration on Tuesday announced a criminal investigation into the deadly explosion and installed a no-nonsense Coast Guard admiral as the public face of the response, instead of BP.
The effect of the April 20 spill, including "oil for miles and miles" in the Gulf of Mexico, is "heartbreaking to see," Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday afternoon during a visit to New Orleans. He also pledged not to forget the 11 lives lost in the explosion.
The nation has an obligation to "investigate what went wrong and to determine what reforms are needed so that we never have to experience a crisis like this again," President Barack Obama said after meeting at the White House with the two men he'd appointed to head an inquiry into the blast.
"If our laws were broken, leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region," Obama said.
The threshold for a criminal investigation on the part of the Justice Department has "certainly been passed," Holder said, although he wouldn't disclose the exact targets of the probe. However, prosecutors are looking at possible violations of the Clean Water Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Oil Pollution Act.
Two companies, their employees and their practices are almost certainly at the heart of the investigation: BP, which owned the well and is responsible for the spill, and Transocean, which owned and operated the rig that exploded, caught fire and sank to the bottom of the sea.
"There are a wide range of possible violations under these statutes, and we will closely examine the actions of those involved in this spill," Holder said at a briefing in New Orleans. "If we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will be forceful in our response. We will not rest until justice is done."
The White House also worked to change the perception that, along with BP, the government hasn't been forthcoming enough about the progress of the most recent containment effort, known as a "top kill." Peeved that the company over the weekend downplayed the amount of oil that could be released in its next effort to contain the flow, the administration moved Tuesday to put an official face on the response: Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the spill..
Allen said that the move — which harked back to the matter-of-fact briefing style of Army Gen. "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf during the 1991 Persian Gulf War — put him in the role of speaking "very frankly to the American public."
Allen said Tuesday that the government and BP had all but given up on fully capping the well that's spewing as much as a million gallons of crude oil a day from 5,000 feet below the sea. Their goal now is to contain as much of the flow as possible until BP can finish drilling two relief wells in August to end the gush, he said.
"We're not talking about capping the well anymore; we're talking about containing the well," Allen said. "There's a difference between capping the well, absorbing the pressure and being able to hold that until the relief well is completed. Where we're at now is we're containing the well, which means we're taking the hydrocarbons that are coming up, bringing them to the surface and actually producing oil and flaring off natural gas."
Crews worked on two separate cuts to a pipe on the ocean floor Tuesday, using remotely operated robots. Their aim is to place a cap over the top of the pipe and connect it to a riser that will send oil and gas to recovery ships on the surface of the ocean until the first relief well is completed.
If they're able to get a precise, close cut, they'll be able to use what's known as a top cap, which has a large rubber gasket that fits securely over the top of the pipe and allows minimal seepage out the sides. If they're not able to get a precise cut, they'll use a looser-fitting containment measure known as a top hat.
It's the difference between a garden hose with a rubber gasket and one without, Allen said, but they remain hopeful that one of those methods will work.
"I think there's a pretty good level of confidence that one of them will go on and we'll be able to contain some oil," he said. "But as we've said all along, we continue to break new ground and we're going to have to wait and see how it comes out."
He also warned that there will be a period of time, estimated at about 72 hours, when the pipe will be wide open and a higher level of oil and gas will flow out before they cap the well.
Allen acknowledged Tuesday that no one who was working on the response was forgetting that they were undertaking their latest containment measure on the first day of hurricane season. He conceded it's possible that even if they're able to contain the flow of oil, a storm could wreak havoc with their efforts.
If they're successful but a storm moves through the Gulf this summer, they'll have to temporarily move the rigs on the surface That are collecting the oil, meaning that more oil would gush out until they could return and re-couple with the containment device.
Also Tuesday, three environmental groups said they planned to sue BP under a provision of the Clean Water Act that allows for citizen enforcement actions. In a letter to BP, the Gulf Restoration Network, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and Environment America said BP had violated its Clean Water act discharge permit by allowing millions of gallons of oil to spill into the Gulf, failing to track the flow of oil accurately and failing to clean it up.
Rather than having specific permits under the act, BP and other companies that are exploring and drilling in the Gulf are covered by general permits issued by the Environmental Protection Agency.
"The general permit does not authorize the discharge of oil from this pipeline or any other sources at the rig," the letter said. "Thus, each day beginning on April 20, 2010, BP has violated and continues to violate its permit."
(Bolstad reported from Washington. Margaret Talev and Les Blumenthal contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY