Report: EPA officials mull sanctions against BP's US operations

Amid increasing anger over a huge oil slick hitting US shores, BP officials Friday denied botching the month-long clean-up and deliberately hiding the true extent of the spill.

With a thick sludge now washing up in the Mississippi delta threatening disaster for a wealth of animal and plant life, the US administration has set the British energy giant tight deadlines to come clean about their operation.

Just how much oil is gushing from a pipe ruptured when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank a month ago has been a contentious issue, with BP initially putting the figure at 5,000 barrels -- or 210,000 gallons -- a day.

"That was not just BP's estimate. That was the estimate of the in-flight command, including NOAA and the Coast Guard. That's the best estimate we have," BP's chief operating officer Doug Suttles said Friday.

But the company says it is now siphoning 5,000 barrels a day from the leak by a mile-long (1,600 meter) insertion tube device, and live webcam television pictures show more oil continuing to spew into the Gulf from the ruptured well, meaning the figure must be higher.

Even at the lowest estimates, more than six million gallons of crude have flowed into the water since the disaster. And independent experts have warned the flow could be at least 10 times higher than the current estimates.

Suttles sought to quell the growing anger among the US administration, residents and lawmakers that not enough is being done, with the spill flowing unchecked since April 20 just 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast.

"We've thrown everything at that," he said on ABC television, saying the company had so far spent some 700 million dollars on the clean-up.

"We've mounted the largest response ever done in the world. We put 20,000 people at this."

He confirmed BP had met a late Thursday deadline set by the US administration to answer concerns over the chemical dispersant used to break up the oil slick on the surface, but had failed to find a less toxic alternative.

"Right now, we cannot identify another product that is available that is better than the Corexit product," he said, stressing the dispersant they were using was on a list approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

US officials have insisted that BP provide a wealth of technical information to the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help them fight the slick.

And Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson are demanding daily public updates on the leak.

"The public and the United States government are entitled to nothing less than complete transparency," they told the oil firm in a letter.

Democratic US congressman Ed Markey voiced the frustrations of many, saying: "We're beginning to understand that we cannot trust BP. People do not trust the experts any longer. BP has lost all credibility."

With thick patches of oil tarring coastal Louisiana marshes, a haven for migratory birds and rare wildlife that will be virtually impossible to clean up, local leaders have started to despair.

"Twenty-four miles (nearly 39 kilometers) of Plaquemines Parish is destroyed. Everything in it is dead," Billy Nungesser, head of the parish in southern Louisiana, told US cable news station MSNBC Thursday.

"There is no life in that marsh. You won't clean it up," he said, adding the slick was "destroying our marsh, inch by inch," and would keep on coming ashore for weeks and months.

The neighboring states of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, including its famous tourist and coral reefs could be next as the slick is swept along by a powerful ocean conveyor belt known as the Loop Current.

An increasingly desperate BP says a "top kill" operation to try to cap the leak for good, by filling the well with heavy drilling fluids and then sealing it with cement, could begin as early as Sunday.

Suttles said Friday he understood people's concerns.

"I share that frustration. I understand the anger. But I can tell you, I don't know of anything absolutely anything we could be doing that we're not doing," he said.

Report: EPA officials mull sanctions against BP's US operations

"Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency are considering whether to bar BP from receiving government contracts, a move that would ultimately cost the company billions in revenue and could end its drilling in federally controlled oil fields," Abrahm Lustgarten reports for ProPublica.

Days ago, in an unannounced move, the EPA suspended negotiations with the petroleum giant over whether it would be barred from federal contracts because of the environmental crimes it committed before the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Officials said they are putting the talks on hold until they learn more about the British company's responsibility for the plume of oil that is spreading across the Gulf.

The EPA said in a statement that, according to its regulations, it can consider banning BP from future contracts after weighing "the frequency and pattern of the incidents, corporate attitude both before and after the incidents, changes in policies, procedures, and practices."

Several former senior EPA debarment attorneys and people close to the BP investigation told ProPublica that means the agency will re-evaluate BP and examine whether the latest incident in the Gulf is evidence of an institutional problem inside BP, a precursor to the action called debarment.

Federal law allows agencies to suspend or bar from government contracts companies that engage in fraudulent, reckless or criminal conduct. The sanctions can be applied to a single facility or an entire corporation. Government agencies have the power to forbid a company from collecting any benefit from the federal government in the forms of contracts, land leases, drilling rights, or loans.

The article adds, "The EPA did not make its debarment officials available for comment or explain its intentions, but in an e-mailed response to questions submitted by ProPublica the agency confirmed that its Suspension and Debarment Office has "temporarily suspended" any further discussion with BP regarding its unresolved debarment cases in Alaska and Texas until an investigation into the unfolding Gulf disaster can be included."


(with additional reporting by Raw Story)