BP's 2009 pipeline spill may lead to criminal charges

Two years ago, a BP pipeline carrying a mix of oil, water and natural gas blew open on the North Slope, spilling what the oil company estimated was 13,500 gallons of crude.

Now that spill is being dissected in federal court to determine whether the circumstances leading up to it amount to criminal behavior by BP.

When the spill was discovered in November 2009, BP was on criminal probation for a misdemeanor conviction from an earlier, much bigger spill and under order not to commit any new environmental crimes. Federal prosecutors say BP violated its probation by failing to act on signs of trouble in a pipeline leading to its Lisburne Production Center, a pipeline that then froze and ruptured.

Prosecutors say BP is a serial environmental offender and want U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline to revoke its probation from the 2007 misdemeanor conviction. If he does so, BP could be sentenced anew on the 2007 case and be hit with additional fines and another period of probation.

BP argues that it had no way to foresee the rupture of a pipeline that had performed well for decades and that what happened was unfortunate but not criminal. BP wants its probation, which was extended after the 2009 spill, to end.

A mini-trial before Beistline started Tuesday with a full day of testimony by Matt Goers, the Anchorage-based agent in charge for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's criminal division. A couple of dozen spectators sat in, including state environmental lawyers, BP executives and EPA officials.

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