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Latest Judge's Ruling On BP Oil Spill Is Key To Upcoming Trial

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We now know how much oil fouled the Gulf of Mexico during the BP oil spill nearly five years ago. A New Orleans federal judge puts that figure at 3.19 million barrels. And that number is key in an upcoming trial that will determine how much the oil giant has to pay for the disaster. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier's ruling is part of a complicated federal civil case establishing liability for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. The Deepwater Horizon exploded in 2010, killing 11 rig workers and sending oil gushing into the Gulf for nearly three months. The spill affected beaches, wetlands and wildlife stretching over five states. Barbier has already found that BP's gross negligence caused the disaster. His new ruling that the company discharged nearly 4 million barrels of oil sets the stage for a penalty phase of the trial that begins next week.

DAVID MUTH: It's a lot of oil.

ELLIOTT: David Muth is the Gulf restoration director for the National Wildlife Federation. He says Barbier's decision gets the coast ever closer to fixing damaged economies and ecosystems.

MUTH: And for this judge to send a very clear and powerful signal to operators in the Gulf that when you're engaging in incredibly risky business that involves human life, the health of communities and the health of ecosystems, you're just are not allowed to take chances. And you need to pay the maximum fine.

ELLIOTT: The Clean Water Act calls for fines up to $4,300 per barrel. That means BP is facing a maximum penalty that could top $13 billion. Barbier acknowledges there's no way to know with precision how much oil polluted the Gulf since, he says, there was no meter counting off each barrel of oil as it exited BP's blown-out well. His figure is less than the government's estimate but more than what BP had said spilled. BP says it's reviewing the decision and will argue for a lower penalty. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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