Government accuses BP of being evasive on Gulf spill flow rate

The Justice Department is accusing BP anew of being evasive on information about the amount of oil that spewed from its undersea well that blew out in the Gulf of Mexico nearly three years ago.

In a letter to a federal magistrate judge in New Orleans filed with the court on Friday, Justice Department lawyer  Sarah Himmelhoch said witnesses that BP designated to be deposed by the government in the ongoing multidistrict oil spill litigation about the flow rate were unprepared to answer key questions.

“BP has engaged in a concerted effort to evade discovery on flow rates from the Macondo well,” Himmelhoch wrote in the letter.

A BP spokesman suggested the issue is a “routine” discovery matter and declined to comment.

The flow rate is a central issue to determining the potential civil fines and penalties that BP will be expected to pay at some point in the future. A civil trial is scheduled for February that will address, among other things, the percentage of blame for each of the companies involved in the doomed well project.

Eleven rig workers were killed when the Macondo well blew out 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The resulting spill was the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The government has estimated that 206 million gallons of oil, or 4.9 million barrels, was discharged from the well a mile beneath the sea before the well was capped three months after the April 2010 blow out. BP has disputed that figure, but never publicly stated its own.

Various government agencies, officials and members of Congress have repeatedly accused the British oil giant of being evasive or untruthful during the response to the disaster and in the years since to questions about the amount of oil that spilled.

A former BP executive faces criminal charges of obstruction of Congress and making false statements about the flow rate. BP, as a company, has agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges that include obstruction of Congress. A plea hearing is set for Jan. 29.

As far as the civil case, Himmelhoch asks in the letter to U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Shushan that the court force BP to comply with previous orders about providing information to the government through witness depositions. Specifically, the Justice Department wants BP to be made to produce witnesses that are prepared and have factual knowledge of certain flow rate issues.

BP has previously alleged that the government has not been forthcoming with some materials pertinent to the company’s case. Shushan recently ordered the Justice Department to instruct Energy Department employees subject to the ongoing litigation to preserve going forward all copies of emails relevant to the case. The order came after some emails were deleted, and BP suggested what was lost was material to its case.