NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The U.S. Justice Department began its fight in federal court Tuesday to try and get BP to pay billions of dollars to restore the coast.
Five years after the mammoth explosion and spill that killed 11 people, environmentalists say it's time to get restoration projects up and running. A small army of attorneys for the Justice Department, BP and myriad affected parties took a brief break from Federal Court as the third and final phase of litigation against the oil giant gets underway.
"The damage has been wide," said Rachel Guillot with the Ocean Conservancy. "It has affected not just the people on the rig, but the people who earn their livelihoods on the Gulf Coast."
Justice Department attorneys showed pictures of oiled birds and fouled beaches like those on Cat Island which can no longer support a pelican rookery.
"It's a fair bet that oil got on the roots and killed the mangrove," said David Muth with the National Wildlife Federation in a FOX 8 interview last year.
The federal government is trying to get BP to pay as much as $13.7 billion in environmental penalties to help restore everything from dolphins and red snapper, to microscopic life on the ocean floor near the spill.
"One of the options is to replant coral on the sea floor," said Guillot. "That's a very innovative project, and it hasn't been done before."
BP is working hard to try and mitigate damages and got the day's first witness, a Coast Guard admiral, to admit that using dispersants and oil burnoffs was an effective way of dealing with the millions of gallons of spilled oil.
However, the Justice Department pointed out that the admirable was not an expert on such measures or on dealing with a spill where the damages stretched to as many as five states.
"Fifty-five thousand people were exposed and put at risk by participating in the cleanup effort," said Guillot.
Complicating the litigation is the effort to account for unseen damages, which was the case in Alaska near the Exxon Valdez spill 25 years ago.
"There are still species and birds who are still recovering or not yet recovered," said Guillot.
BP lawyers will argue for a lower settlement, saying they've already committed more than $40 billion to clean-up and mitigation. The trial is expected to last three weeks.